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    South Asia
     Jun 29, 2010

India scores bio-piracy victory
By Sreeram Chaulia

India scored a stunning victory over China on June 10. It did not come in the two Asian rivalsí unresolved boundary dispute, nascent cyber-war, or race for influence in international relations. Rather, it occurred in the scientific-technical environs of the European Patent Office (EPO) on a turf that is likely to become a major battleground - bio-piracy or the theft of traditional flora, fauna and knowledge forms.

The EPO, which grants trademark protection to individual inventors and companies in up to 40 European countries, in February delivered exclusive patents on two medicinal herbaceous plants - andrographis and mint - to the Chinese pharmaceutical giant Livzon.

With a board of directors closely connected to the Chinese Communist Party, Livzon is one of Asia's leading research-oriented bio-technology firms and enjoys a lion's share of China's drug market. It is also successfully foraying into overseas markets like Western Europe and the Middle East.

The EPO's award was a shot in the arm for Shenzhen-listed Livzon, which had claimed in an application in January 2007 that the two herbs could be newfound ingredients to manufacture medicines treating avian flu (H5N1 influenza). With a robust laboratory of scientists that perform gene recombination and biological extraction, Livzon planned to cash in on the EPO's patent to produce a wonder drug for the flu that has claimed the lives of millions of birds and hundreds of humans since 1987.

But once the patent was awarded by the EPO, India sprung into action, disputing Livzon's argument that treatment for fever, detoxification and bird flu by employing andrographis and mint was novel. In fact, it was a time-tested Indian practice, where the herbs (locally known as "kalamegha" and "pudina") had been regular inputs for curing influenza and epidemic fevers.

India's traditional medicine system, ayurveda, which can be traced to at least 1,500 BC, had accorded pride of place to natural remedies based on a diverse range of plant species. Pudina and kalamegha entered the lexicon of India's home-healing lore long ago and continue to feature in diet and culinary preparations for their immunity-boosting, cooling and aromatic qualities.

According to the Times of India, a complaint from India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to the EPO included extensive citations from texts of ayurveda and yunani (Greco-Arabic traditional medicine popular in South Asia), "dating back to the 9th century" to demonstrate that medicinal knowledge of pudina and kalamegha was present for "ages".

The comprehensive evidence presented by India convinced the EPO's three-member investigative panel, leading to the cancelation of Livzon's patent.

The credit for saving these two household names from a biotech giant goes to a digitalization project started by the Indian government in the year 2000. After eight years of laborious information-extraction by over 200 scientists and language experts, India came up with a detailed database of its traditional medicinal formulations translated from Hindi, Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Tamil into five international languages - English, Japanese, French, German and Spanish.

The resultant Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) documents more than 200,000 natural medicinal prescriptions spread over 30 million pages of details. TKDL made accessible to the world knowledge about Indian systems of medicine (ISM) that had been confined to the sub-continent due to their original renderings in arcane ancient languages.

Armed with TKDL, India's scientists have launched a vigorous challenge to bio-piracy of the country's medicinal heritage by firms from Spain (melon extract to cure vitiligo) and the United States ("ashwagandha" to cure depression, insomnia and diabetes). Even yoga postures have been rescued from quack Western instructors in the lucrative market for alternative health exercise. CSIR estimated that before TKDL was compiled, India was bleeding about 2,000 new patents every year at the EPO and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

The case against Livzon has brought home a realization in India that bio-piracy, which had initially been feared to be a predatory habit of Western multinationals, can arise right across the border from Asian companies that are on a global expansionary trot. By conclusively establishing the existence of "prior art" on a specific plant, TKDL is defending India's way of life itself, which revolves around attaching spiritual significance to natural phenomena.

Fighting bio-piracy is a terrain that combines nationalistic honor with practical concerns about denial of freely available local knowledge and substances to common people who have inherited them from their forebears. India stands to gain in soft power internationally by helping other threatened countries build their own local versions of TKDL in what futurologist Jeremy Rifkin terms as the "biotech century".

India has been approached with requests for technical assistance from Malaysia, Thailand, Mongolia, Nigeria, South Africa and the African Regional Property Organization to set up digital libraries of medicinally beneficial local plant species. India already engages in training young technicians from other countries in information technology, agricultural science, engineering and other fields, but the future growth area for sharing its strengths in the knowledge economy with needy nations lies in preservation of the biological commons.

The fact that Indian intellectuals like Vandana Shiva are pioneers in alerting governments and making citizens aware to the dangers of biological theft (her book, Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge appeared in 1996) enhances the country's stature as a thought leader that can position itself as a defending arm on which other countries can lean.

The sensitivity and touchiness that characterize formerly colonized societies when they confront brazen stealing of local resources by foreign states and corporations ensure that external aid to conserve local heirlooms is an invaluable service that wins goodwill for India. There can be no more rewarding form of foreign scientific collaboration than one deemed as providing a bulwark against forces that bankrupt national identity and culture.

Of all the varieties of plunder and looting that dot the history of humanity, the one that pertains to flora and fauna is coming to the fore as dominant due to the fait accompli of decolonization. Biotech corporations need not send armies of occupying soldiers to extract resources and can still win patents over them through the logic of copyright granting institutions that act as gatekeepers to profitable Western pharmaceutical markets.

Unless states and scientific bodies in vulnerable countries wake up and follow the example set by India, they may unwittingly hand over the keys to their national souls in a cutthroat global economy in which stealth and informational alacrity count as weapons.

Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India.

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