Meds and you

08 May 2008

EU patent fight over SA plant

A southern African plant is at the centre of a patent fight that might determine the price of future anti-bronchitis medicines.

In a move that may help to keep the price of an anti-bronchitis medicine down, activists are challenging a patent on a method of extracting the drug from a southern African plant,

The activists will try to show that the method of extraction is based on ancient African knowledge.

The dispute before the European Patent Office in Munich involves the plant umckaloabo, scientific name Pelargonium sidoides. Umckaloabo drugs extracted from its roots have been in wide use for a century And recent scientific studies have yielded incouraging results for the use of the drug to treat the symptoms of bronchitis.

The same process?
A company, called "Dr Willmar Schwabe of Karlsruhe", Germany, has patented a factory process to obtain the extract from the Pelargonium sidoides plant.

Michael Frein, of the German Lutheran church development service, said the process was effectively the same as the traditional one used in the town of Alice in South Africa and in Lesotho to make an anti- bronchitis and anti-tuberculosis remedy.

Frein said, "We demand that plants and their drugs not be used without the consent of the indigenous people who discovered them." Mariam Mayet of the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) told reporters the company had no right to such a patent.

Activists said the company had snatched away African rights. They filed their protest on March 10 and demand the cancellation of patent and aid from Dr Schwabe to extend umckaloabo plantings.

Claims rejected
Traugott Ullrich, a spokesman for the company's subsidiary Spitzner Arzneimittel, rejected the claim, saying umckaloabo had been in use in Europe for more than 100 years and the company's extraction process was completely unlike the traditional one.

"Our process comprises 20 separate steps and we obtain certain ingredients specifically," he said. This enabled less desirable ingredients to be completely removed so the drug could be customized for certain illnesses.

The Pelargonium sidoides patent is the latest case of what some activists are calling "bio-piracy" – in which "ancient knowledge" or "natural diversity" is being patented.

In a key case in 2006 various patents were revoked on uses of the south Asian neem tree, BBC News reported. – (Sapa-dpa/Health24)

Read more:
Pharmaceuticals, patents, and the poor

May, 2008


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