US trademark cloud on Kerala 'wonder' drug

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By JOHN MARY in Thiruvananthapuram
  • Published 15.02.04
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Thiruvananthapuram, Feb. 15: A US firm has raised a storm by acquiring a trademark on a patented herbal product of the indigenous Kani tribe of Kerala.

Jeevani, known as the ginseng of the Kani people, is a herbal formulation famed for its anti-fatigue, immunity-enhancing and liver-protecting qualities. Widely used as a wonder drug by the tribe, it strengthens the body’s natural defences by activating the cellular immune system and enhances a host of other innate faculties.

The formulation is based on an extract of the plant, Trichopus Zeylanicus subspecies Travancoricus, endemic to the Western Ghats, with a heavy concentration in the Agastyar hills of Kerala.

Jeevani was developed by the Tropical Botanic Gardens and Research Institute (TBGRI) here and patented in 1995. The TBGRI-tribal partnership on Jeevani, with half the royalty going to the tribe, has been acclaimed as a model in benefit sharing for which the institute got the UN Equator Prize in 2002.

The news has come as a blow to TBGRI director Dr G.M. Nair, who was preparing to float a global marketing tender for Jeevani at the end of a seven-year arrangement with the Coimbatore Arya Vaidya Pharmacy in Tamil Nadu.

Jeevani, which sells at Rs 160 for every 75-gm granule pack in India, is being sold without authorisation in the foreign market at $29 to $39 per pack.

Nair said the trademark registration on Jeevani in the US had raised concern at the International Conference on Biodiversity in Delhi recently. He planned to move the central and state governments and take up the case at the highest international forum.

Reacting to the row, Jacob Pallathra, the president of NutriScience Innovations, Connecticut, claimed in an e-mail message that the product being marketed was purchased from Kerala and made in association with TBGRI.

“A layperson tends to believe that the trademark registration means it is a patent. We do not have any patents on Jeevani and we respect the patent in Kerala and we are selling the same Jeevani made in Kerala,” he said.

Pallathra stated that his company has been importing Jeevani through a proper and legal channel and promoting it overseas to benefit both the Kani tribe and the institute.

“In fact, they must have already gained monetary benefits due to our hard efforts in promoting the sales in North America. What we are doing is to promote the sales of Jeevani and this enables both the Kani tribe/TBGRI to derive economic benefits. We are not selling any other form of Jeevani as may have been implied,” the message read.

Nair said he did not know about any agreement between his institute and NutriScience and the legal actions by the US firm. If NutriScience had any altruistic or even a justifiable commercial interest in promoting Jeevani, as claimed by Pallathra, they should have had the courtesy to enter into a formal contract with us, he argued.

While criticising the step taken by NutriScience, Chronicle Pharmabiz, a journal, raised questions about the role of the institute and the Coimbatore pharmacy.

“What is surprising here is that NutriScience has been sourcing Jeevani in bulk quantities from Arya Vaidya Pharmacy until two years ago. How is that both Arya Vaidya Pharmacy and TBGRI did not suspect any foul play in such imports is something not very clear…. (Another) lapse on the part of TBGRI is that it failed to register Jeevani as a trademark in the US and European markets,” it said in an editorial.