Tragic potion

Herbal drug stuck in IPR jam, tribal group biggest loser

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Wednesday 31 March 2004

-- (Credit: EMKAY)india's wonder drug Jeevani -- developed by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Tropical Botanic Garden Research Institute (tbgri) using the traditional knowledge of Kerala's Kani tribe -- hit the headlines a few years ago. It was heralded as the world's first product that perfectly exemplified the access and benefit-sharing system involving indigenous people. The model even bagged the un Equator Prize in 2002. Now, Jeevani is in the news again. But for all the wrong reasons.

Media articles suggest that a us company has surreptitiously patented the product and is doing brisk business on line. At the same time, Jeevani's original licensee claims that there are no takers for the medicine. Yet it continues to manufacture the drug. And tbgri is at sixes and sevens over the position of the product with regard to intellectual property rights. Amid the tangled web, the Kani tribals, who provided valuable inputs for the medicine's formulation in the first place, have been sidelined.

Jeevani is a herbal product prepared from Trichopus zeylanicus (arogyappacha), Withania somnifera (ashwagandha), Piper longum (pepper) and Evolvulus alsinoides (sankhapuspi). It is known to enhance immunity levels, and has anti-fatigue as well as anti-stress properties. Experts are convinced that the current mess has nothing to do with the drug's efficacy. Rather, the labyrinthine complexities of the matter and the concerned entities' ignorance have caused the confusion.

For instance, tbgri -- which evolved the product, issued its licence and represents the Kani tribe -- seems to have little understanding of patents and trademarks rules. According to the institute's director, G M Nair, tbgri has obtained a "lifelong patent" on the product. The fact is that patents are granted for seven years only. Down To Earth (dte) found that while tbgri had applied to the Indian Patent Office for a process patent in 1996, it has yet to get the same. However, another application filed by the institute in 1998 was accepted in 2002. What is more, no attempt has been made to get a trademark for the brand 'Jeevani'. "This has led to the name being used for dozens of products," points out a patents expert in Delhi.

Herbal product manufacturer Arya Vaidya Pharmacy (avp) of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, has also contributed to the chaos. The company had been given the licence to manufacture and market the drug in 1995. tbgri is on the verge of floating a fresh tender for the licence on the ground that the seven-year period has elapsed. avp, however, contends that the know-how of the product was given to it only in 1999. "We still have the right to make the drug," asserts P T Chacko, general manager, r&d, avp. While the pharmacy says it has intimated tbgri about this technicality, the latter stresses that it has received no such communication.

In the meantime, avp continues to manufacture and sell the product. The name of us-based NutriScience Innovations, llc, figures among its buyers. This company, too, has played a controversial role in the entire affair. It is alleged to have acquired a registered trademark for Jeevani in 1999. This "exclusivity" lapsed in 2001. Even as avp says that the last time it supplied the medicine to NutriScience was in 2002, the latter is still advertising the product on the Internet. Since the shelf life of the product is just one year, NutriScience is either selling the drug unmindful of the expiry dates or sourcing it on the sly from some unknown company. Both propositions augur badly. If the former is true, the product's image is likely to be dented in the market. The latter scenario would indicate that the Kani tribe is losing out on valuable royalty. Despite repeated attempts, dte could not elicit a response from NutriScience.

avp's latest stance on the subject is quite inexplicable. On the one hand, it insists that the returns from Jeevani are not commensurate with the Rs 30 lakh the company has pumped into the project. On the other hand, it wants to cling to the licence for the drug. Could the company be selling the product without disclosing actual sales figures to scrimp on the royalty? Quite possible, avers Nair. "We have complained to the Kerala government and are trying to find out whether NutriScience is getting the product consistently," he adds. In an intriguing aside, though the product is priced at just Rs 160 for a 75-gramme (gm) jar by avp, a Los Angeles-based firm, Jeevani Company llc, is selling the drug globally at 11 times this price. Also, a Kochi-based firm is reportedly reselling it.

Clearly, the gains from the venture aren't percolating down to the tribal group. The Kanis received a one-time payment of Rs 5 lakh when the product was licensed. The tribe is also supposed to get a 1 per cent royalty on sales. In 2003, it earned a paltry Rs 2,000 from this source. Darshan Shankar, director, Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions, a Bangalore-based non-governmental organisation, strikes an optimistic note: "The Kanis are not dependent on just Jeevani for their livelihood -- they have knowledge about hundreds of plants and will find ways of using them." All the same, experts are of the view that a chance to showcase a fruitful and equitable benefit-sharing model has been lost. Furthermore, what's the guarantee that the other collaborative efforts won't go the Jeevani way?

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