Bioprospecting involves the exploration for plant and animal species that possess valuable medicinal drugs and other commercially significant compounds. Recently, there has been a concerning trend of international pharmaceutical companies seeking and acquiring patents for the medicinal use of commonly found Indian medicinal plants. Upon investigation of global trademark offices’ records, it was discovered that a staggering 2,000 patents had been granted for “medical plants and traditional systems” that are prevalent in India, incurring substantial costs.
Indian traditional knowledge of medicine:
- India encompasses a rich heritage of systems such as Yoga, Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha, Naturopathy, and Homeopathy.
- However, a significant portion of India’s traditional medicinal knowledge has been documented in languages like Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Urdu, and Tamil, rendering it inaccessible and incomprehensible to patent examiners working in major international patent offices where these applications are submitted.
Measures taken by India to safeguard traditional knowledge of medicine include:
- Establishing AYUSH as a separate Ministry.
- Initiating the creation of the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) in 2001. This database digitizes traditional medicinal information, making it accessible in five major international languages for patent offices worldwide. Examiners can utilize this resource to conduct patent searches and verify the novelty of inventions.
- The TKDL has meticulously converted and organized ancient texts into 34 million A4-sized pages and translated them into English, French, and German, Japanese, and Spanish— major international languages.
- The Indian government has granted licenses for 200,000 local treatments, designating them as “public property” available for anyone to use but not sell as a brand.
- India has actively pursued the revival of World Trade Organization (WTO) discussions to strengthen global standards for protecting traditional knowledge against indiscriminate patenting by corporations.
- Efforts have been made to raise awareness among tribal communities about the provisions related to patenting traditional knowledge. Assistance is provided to document their claims to oppose any future bioprospecting endeavors.
- India has signed and ratified the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization (ABS).
- India stands as the only country to have established an institutional mechanism, the TKDL, dedicated to safeguarding its traditional knowledge. This mechanism enables prompt and nearly cost-free cancellation or withdrawal of patent applications related to India’s traditional knowledge.
The traditional knowledge of medicinal plants has the potential to address numerous healthcare challenges in India by providing affordable and sustainable remedies. The government should strive to commercialize this knowledge before multinational pharmaceutical companies exploit it.