Dutch scientists who took out a patent on the novel coronavirus that’s killed 22 people since emerging in Saudi Arabia last year defended the move after the Saudi Health Ministry said the patent was hindering the fight against the outbreak.
Albert Osterhaus and Ron Fouchier, virologists at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, said patenting the virus was a “normal thing to do,” and that they have shared it freely with more than 40 labs worldwide, in a phone interview from Rotterdam yesterday.
“We’re still sharing this virus with everyone who wants to do public health research,” Osterhaus said. The suggestion that the patent was impeding progress in public health was “definitely not the case,” he said.
Saudi Deputy Health Minister, Ziad Memish, told the World Health Assembly in Geneva earlier yesterday that the virus was sent from the country without proper permission, and that scientists outside the country had signed contracts with companies that make antivirals and vaccines, delaying the development of a diagnostic test. The assembly is the top decision-making body of the World Health Organization.
Osterhaus said no agreements have been signed with any companies, and “diagnostic tests were developed instantly and were made freely available immediately to anyone who asked for them.”
The virus now known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS-CoV, has sickened at least 44 people globally since June, and killed 22, of which 10 have been in Saudi Arabia, according to the WHO. Laboratory-confirmed cases have also been reported in Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, France, the U.K., Germany and Tunisia, the United Nations health agency said.
The doctor who treated the first case, Ali Mohamed Zaki, sent a sample of the virus to Osterhaus and Fouchier for identification, Osterhaus said.
“He didn’t know what he had,” he said.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told health ministers and officials at the assembly yesterday that the virus should have been sent to a WHO lab, and that she would investigate the legal implications of the event.
“Please, I’m very strong on this,” she said. “Making deals between scientists because they want to take out IP and be the first to publish in scientific journals, we cannot allow that. No intellectual property should stand in the way of you protecting your people. Do you agree or not?”
The assembly applauded.
Osterhaus and Fouchier said they had an “ethical obligation” to patent the virus in order to accelerate the development of vaccines and antivirals.
“Industry would not be interested if there was a patent minefield,” Osterhaus said. Erasmus is not in discussions with any companies “at this stage” and the patent may never make any money, he said.
Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general for health, security and the environment, said the agency’s first priority was to deal with the outbreak.
“When you have a house burning, you look at how to put the fire out,” Fukuda told reporters in Geneva yesterday. “That’s what we’re worried about. Later on you might look at the neighborhood and what the other issues are.”
There are few patents on viruses mainly because most of the known ones were identified a long time ago, said Kevin Noonan, a biotechnology patent lawyer with McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff in Chicago. The patent would be on an isolated version that’s made in the laboratory rather than the virus as it’s found in a patient, he said. Research institutes commonly obtain patents on their work as a way to control how it’s being used even if they allow others to conduct tests freely, he said.
“It’s great publicity to say they’re sharing it,” Noonan said. “They’re trying to be good citizens because they’re a university.”
Coronaviruses are a family of pathogens that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to SARS, which sickened more than 8,000 people in 2002 and 2003, according to the WHO. While the new virus is related to the one that causes SARS, it appears far less transmissible, the WHO has said.
Fouchier authored a study last year that showed five genetic tweaks to the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus made it airborne in ferrets, the mammals whose response to flu most closely resembles that of humans. Fouchier’s team, and another group led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, called a voluntary moratorium on the work after publication of their studies was delayed over concerns their research may be used by bioterrorists.
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