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August 12, 1998


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Mystery shrouds Vechoor cow patent issue

D Jose in Thiruvananthapuram

A few years ago, environmentalist Vandana Shiva claimed at a Delhi conference that the Roslin Institute in Edinburg had patented the Vechoor cow, a variety found only in Kerala.

And, recently, goaded by charges and rumours that top Kerala Agricultural University officials have sent it abroad, the university contacted the institute. The latter, famed for developing Dolly, the first cloned sheep, denied the allegation.

But the controversy is far from over. A section of the Kerala Agricultural University, which has an ongoing project to preserve this endangered breed, still believes the germ plasm -- the hereditary material contained in a cell -- is with the institute.

The Vechoor cow, a natural breed, is believed to be the smallest cow in the world. Scientists who have done research in the state believe the cow is a result of the peculiar geo-climatic conditions prevalent between two streams of the Vembanad lake in central Kerala. The university authorities claim that this breed is available only with them.

The Vechoor cows had attracted attention since it is the only local breed that is known for its good yield, up to three litres. It stands about three feet high and weighs between 125 and 150 kg. It is believed to be better resistant to disease. Its milk is also believed to contain compounds that fight cholestrol.

The university claims the germ plasm was safe. But a senior university professor said that, while the Roslin Institute may not have patented the breed, it would in all probability have got its hands on the germ plasm.

He said Shiva's allegations could not be ignored -- the allegation was published in two magazines -Animal Citizen and Jeeva. He asked how the university could claim the germ plasm was safe when Vechoor cows are bought by several people. He said it could have gone with a student going abroad for higher studies.

The professor feared that the germ plasm might have changed hands through students who have gone abroad for higher studies. And there are others who back his view.

The university wrote to the Roslin Institute seeking clarification after some academics claimed that the germ plasm had been passed on to the institute by top university officials. They believe the germ plasm went abroad sometime during the agitation against the then KAU vice chancellor Michael Tharakan.

Roslin Institute Director and Chief Executive Prof Grahame Bulfield denied the reports in response to the letter sent from the KAU. A fax message he sent to university Dean S Sulochana stated the Institute had never heard of the Vechoor breed of cow.

"We certainly have no germ plasm nor have we patented them. I doubt whether a naturally occurring breed could, in any case, be patented. I have no idea what your media reports could be about," the message read.

The department of bio-technology at the ministry of science and technology also examined the issue. Suman Govil, principal officer, said she found no material on such a patent in databases in the US and the UK. In a letter to R V Nair of the KAU Co-operative Cocoa Research Project, Govil said he searched all patents listed on databases from January 1976 to February 7,1998.

"We have been unable to lay our hands on the patent claimed to have been taken by the Roslin Institute of Edinburg," he said, adding that he would search other databases too.

Dr Sulochana said she was fully convinced that the Roslin Institute does not have the germ plasm. "I have no reason to doubt the words of the director of a prestigious institute like Roslin," she said.

However, the university would keep trying to find if the Roslin Institute or any other institution abroad had taken a patent on Vechoor cows.

The university has also contacted the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in this regard.

Official KAU sources said Shiva's allegations could not be correct since Kerala had no facility to transfer the germ plasm at the time the environmentalist mentioned. This section says that allegations, based on material gathered from the Internet, should have been made only after checking the facts.

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