Council on Foreign Relations: Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, closed the annual World Health Assembly this week [May 27] sounding alarm about a new SARS-like virus circulating primarily in Saudi Arabia.
“My greatest concern right now is the novel coronavirus,” Chan warned the representatives of two hundred nations gathered in Geneva. “We do not know where the virus hides in nature. We do not know how people are getting infected. Until we answer these questions, we are empty-handed when it comes to prevention.”
But impeding an effective response is a dispute over rights to develop a treatment for the virus. The case brings to the fore a growing debate over International Health Regulations, interpretations of patent rights, and the free exchange of scientific samples and information. Meanwhile, the epidemic has already caused forty-nine cases in seven countries, killing twenty-seven of them.
At the center of the dispute is a Dutch laboratory that claims all rights to the genetic sequence of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus [MERS-CoV]. Saudi Arabia’s deputy health minister, Ziad Memish, told the WHO meeting that “someone”–a reference to Egyptian virologist Ali Zaki–mailed a sample of the new SARS-like virus out of his country without government consent in June 2012, giving it to Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam.
“The virus was sent out of the country and it was patented, contracts were signed with vaccine companies and anti-viral drug companies, and that’s why they have a MTA [Material Transfer Agreement] to be signed by anybody who can utilize that virus, and that should not happen,” Memish said.
Though Memish referred to a “patent,” the Dutch team has not patented the viral genetic sequence but has placed it under an MTA, which requires sample recipients to contractually agree not to develop products or share the sample without the permission of Erasmus and the Fouchier laboratory. Memish said that the Dutch MTA was preventing Saudi Arabia from stopping the MERS-CoV outbreak, which appears to have started eleven months ago in the Eastern part of his country. The Dutch team denies the MTA is slowing work on the outbreak, saying it has given virus samples to any lab that has requested it.
Courts in North America and Europe have ruled that it is possible to patent life forms or their genetic sequences, spurring the practice of claiming patent control on newly identified microoganisms. Such patents give owner rights over royalties on all products derived from the genetic sequence, including vaccines, diagnostics, and genetically targeted treatments. But they have spawned controversy outside of wealthy countries, since they are perceived as guaranteeing profits for Western pharmaceuticals at the expense of country-of-origin use and access. [Continue reading…]