PSM sounds alarm over Putrajaya’s patent on ‘Tongkat Ali’ extract

PSM chief Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj pressed the government to explain how a naturally available substance that was historically used as a traditional medicine could be patented.
PSM chief Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj pressed the government to explain how a naturally available substance that was historically used as a traditional medicine could be patented.

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 6 — Putrajaya must urgently relook Malaysia’s patent laws that allowed a ministry to jointly patent “Tongkat Ali” extract and prevent local manufacturers from using this without paying a royalty fee, PSM said today.

Citing a public warning notice taken out by the sole local licensee, PSM chief Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj pressed the government to explain how a naturally available substance that was historically used as a traditional medicine could be patented.

“The PSM is shocked that existing patent laws in Malaysia can be so easily misused to create monopolies for well-connected companies that allow them to claim exclusive rights over the production and sale of a product like Tongkat Ali which has been used for its medicinal properties for centuries,” Dr Jeyakumar said in a statement.

Disputing Biotropics Msia Bhd’s claim in the notice that the patent holders “invented” the extract of the plant also known as “Malaysian ginseng”, Dr Jeyakumar pointed out that natives in the region have used “Tongkat Ali” for ages.

He further warned that the patent would require any who use “Tongkat Ali” extract in their products to pay a royalty to do so, describing this as the use of patent laws to “fence up” resources that were commonly available to the public.

Dr Jeyakumar clarified that there would be nothing wrong for Biotropics to claim its licensed technology could produce purer and safer “Tongkat Ali” extracts than competitors but said the Malaysian public must be allowed to decide if this was worth a premium.

The PSM chief said local patent laws appeared vulnerable to abuse that could lead to powerful firms monopolising products that were already publicly available and forcing Malaysians to pay high prices for these.

He also sought to rally all local makers of “Tongkat Ali” products and consumer groups to join forces and challenge Biotropics’ patent in court.

“The theft of our traditional knowledge must not go unchallenged!”

The July 29 notice announced that the Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Ministry and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were the joint patent holders of “Tongkat Ali” extract here.

It further announced that Biotropics was the sole local licensee of the patent and any other producers of “Tongkat Ali” extracts were in violation of the Patents Act 1983, an offence punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of RM15,000.

According to the notice, the patent covers a composition of Eurycoma longifolia water extract, which provides for new scientific uses and products. Eurycoma longifolia is the scientific name of “Tongkat Ali”.

“Tongkat Ali” is native to Malaysia as well as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. It is traditionally used as a virility supplement and often consumed as a food or drink additive.

While there is no clinical evidence of its efficacy in providing any health benefit, “Tongkat Ali” remains popular in local markets.

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