India has documented traditional medical formulations. Over two hundred thousand of them, across Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani branches. The idea is to pre-empt patenting by western firms through piracy. The country has lost over 15,000 patents of medicinal plants this way.
After eight years of toil, over 200 scientists and researchers from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Union Health ministry's department of Ayush have scientifically converted information of traditional Indian medicine from Hindi, Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Tamil to five international languages — English, Japanese, French, German and Spanish. The documentation runs to over 30 million pages.
In the absence of a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), now set up, India could lose 2,000 new patents every year, Dr V P Gupta from CSIR says.
In the past, patents have been granted by the European Patent Office (EPO) on the use of over 285 Indian medicinal plants such as papaya, Indian long pepper, kali tulsi, pudina, ginger, aloe, isabgol, aaonla, jira, soybean, tomato, almond, walnut and methi.
This is why India has now also signed a landmark agreement with the EPO. Under the three-year agreement, which came into effect on February 3, the database would be available to the patent examiners at EPO "for establishing prior art," in case of patent applications based on Indian systems of medicine (ISM).
However, the information so obtained will be restricted only for patent search and examination purposes. EPO will not be able to disclose the information to a third party.
According to CSIR's Director General Prof Samir Brahmchari, on an average, it takes five to seven years to oppose a granted patent internationally and costs Rs 1-3 crore. Hence protecting all the various formulations without a TKDL would be prohibitively expensive.
It has become a model for other countries wanting to defend their traditional knowledge from misappropriation. South Africa, African Regional Property Organisation, Mongolia, Nigeria, Malaysia and Thailand have asked India to help them replicate TKDL.
Health secretary Naresh Dayal told Kounteya Sinha of Times of India
, "TKDL will ensure Indian traditional medical knowledge remains safe, used by Indian companies for the benefit of Indians."
The decision to create TKDL was taken in 2001 in the aftermath of wrong patents granted by US Patent and Trade Mark Office (USPTO) on wound healing properties of turmeric (1995) and on anti-fungal properties of neem granted by European Patent Office (EPO), even though the plants were being used for centuries under ISM for such benefits.
"If TKDL had existed earlier, then international disputes regarding patenting of neem, turmeric and basmati would not have occurred," CSIR's Dr Gupta said.
He added that in a study conducted in 2000, 4,896 patents were granted by US PTO on medicinal plants, 80% on which were on plants of Indian origin.
"In a study of 760 such patents, we found 350 patents should have never been granted. Over 200-500 such patents are granted every year, mainly due to the lack of access to documented knowledge in India," Dr Gupta added.