EU patent ruling on German drug highlights biopiracy debate | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 27.01.2010
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EU patent ruling on German drug highlights biopiracy debate

European authorities have withdrawn a patent granted to a German firm on an anti-bronchitis drug derived from a South African medicinal plant. Activists say it marks a success in the fight against biopiracy.

A Pelargonium sidoides plant

The plant at the heart of the dispute - Pelargonium sidoides

A spokesman for the European Patent Office in Munich said this week that the patent granted in 2007 to German pharmaceutical company Schwabe to develop the drug did not amount to "a discovery."

The spokesman said the techniques used by the company to extract ingredients from the roots of the Pelargonium sidoides plant native to South Africa to develop a product called umckaloabo were "sufficiently known in advance."

Marketed as an African natural remedy, umckaloabo is a popular drug in Germany for treating bronchitis, colds, coughs and other respiratory ailments.

A woman sneezing

Umckaloabo is a popular German cold remedy

Schwabe, which is based in Karlsruhe in southern Germany, says it plans to appeal the decision.

The company has argued in the past that that its factory extraction process is completely unlike the traditional one. It also pointed out that umckaloabo has been in use in Europe for more than 100 years.

Activists protest on ethical grounds

But the ruling has been welcomed by groups campaigning against biopiracy - a term that describes how corporations from the developed world take resources from developing countries to develop profit-making products such as medicines, without rewarding the countries from which they are taken.

The German Protestant Church development service (EED) described the patent authorities' decision as "a success in the fight against biopiracy." It said the extraction methods used by Schwabe could be easily found in relevant handbooks.

"We're happy that the ruling takes away Schwabe's right to monopolize the use of genetic resources and traditional knowledge from South Africa," Mariam Mayet of the African Center for Bio Safety said in a statement.

The two groups are part of an international alliance made up of South African community groups, NGOs and rival drug firms that has challenged the Schwabe patent since it was granted in 2007.

While drug companies have complained that Schwabe failed to fulfill the criteria for awarding patents, activist groups have protested on ethical grounds.

They say that people in Lesotho and Alice in the Eastern Cape of South Africa have historically produced tinctures from the roots of two species of pelargonium that grow in the wild to treat respiratory infections and diseases, including tuberculosis.

Schwabe is accused of drawing on this traditional African knowledge to develop and market umckaloabo and reap profits without involving indigenous people.

Convention needs strengthening

Michael Frein, a spokesman for EED, said the latest decision by the European patent office needed to be followed up by drafting legal guidelines that would prevent similar patents being granted. This, he said, needed to be done within the framework of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The 1993 agreement tries to make sure that the benefits of using natural resources for profit are shared between the exploiters and the communities from which they take their resources.

In 2002 at a meeting of the convention, more than 150 countries drew up guidelines for developing countries to ensure that they reap some of the benefits of the discoveries made in their forests. Companies would only be given access if they agreed to give a share of the profits or royalties from the products back to the countries in which they are operating.

But many say the guidelines are too weak and will not prevent knowledge and natural wealth being mined by international firms eager to make quick profits.

Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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