KSA: Coronavirus patent complicating diagnosis

KSA: Coronavirus patent complicating diagnosis
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KSA: Coronavirus patent complicating diagnosis
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Updated 31 May 2013

KSA: Coronavirus patent complicating diagnosis

KSA: Coronavirus patent complicating diagnosis

GENEVA: Saudi Arabia lamented Thursday that foreign drug companies had patented the new SARS-like novel coronavirus that has killed 22 people worldwide in less than a year, slowing down the diagnosis process considerably.
"We are still struggling with diagnostics and the reason is that the virus was patented by scientists and is not allowed to be used for investigations by other scientists," Saudi Deputy Health Minister Ziad Memish told diplomats gathered in Geneva for the World Health Assembly, the UN health agency's decision-making body.
He said a scientist took a virus sample out of the country without permission, gave it to the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, and Saudi Arabia only learned of its discovery from ProMED, a US-based Internet-based reporting system.
“There was a lag of three months where we were not aware of the discovery of the virus,” Memish said.
The Rotterdam-based Erasmus lab then patented the process for synthesizing the virus, meaning that anyone else who wanted to use their method to study it would have to pay the lab.
"It was patented, and contracts were signed with vaccine companies and anti-viral drug companies" which now need to give their approval every time another lab wants to use the virus, he said.
"I think strongly that the delay in the development of .... diagnostic procedures is related to the patenting of the virus," Memish said.
WHO chief Margaret Chan expressed outrage at the information.
"Why would your scientists send specimens out to other laboratories on a bilateral manner and allow other people to take intellectual property right on new disease?" she asked.
"Any new disease is full of uncertainty," she said, urging the WHO's 194 member states to only share "viruses and specimens with WHO collaborating centers, ... not in a bilateral manner."
"I will follow it up. I will look at the legal implications together with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. No IP (intellectual property) should stand in the way of you, the countries of the world, to protect your people," she told the delegates to thundering applause.

World total death toll at 22

So far, there have been 44 lab-confirmed cases worldwide of the virus which until now has been known as the novel coronavirus, or nCoV-EMC, but which this week was redubbed the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS CoV).

Saudi Arabia by far counts the most cases, with 30 confirmed infections and 17 fatalities, while cases have also been detected in Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Britain and France.

Earlier on Thursday, Saudi Arabia announced another death from the virus in the central province of Qassim region, bringing the total number of deaths in the kingdom to 17. (Please click here to see related story)
The virus is a cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which triggered a scare 10 years ago when it erupted in east Asia, leaping to humans from animal hosts and eventually killing some 800 people.
Like SARS, the new virus appears to cause an infection deep in the lungs, with patients suffering from a temperature, cough and breathing difficulty, but it differs from SARS in that it also causes rapid kidney failure.
Memish stressed Thursday that a lot of uncertainty remains around how the virus spreads and what symptoms to look for, pointing out that some patients have instead of respiratory difficulties shown signs like diarrhea and vomiting.
He also said diagnoses were problematic and in some cases tests needed to be performed two or even three times.

'You are the boss'Chan told the health ministers “you are the boss” and urged them to ensure scientists shared their specimens with WHO’s network of collaborating laboratories.

The patent does not break WHO rules on sharing such information on a possible pandemic, which only apply to flu viruses, but there is a legal requirement for countries to notify WHO of any outbreak of disease of international concern.
Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director-general for health security, said there was still a “huge amount” unknown about the virus and great concern about its potential to spread.
Among the gaps in the knowledge of the virus was information about its geographical spread, and many countries may only have minimal surveillance for the disease, he said.
The only test for the disease is the widely-available PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction), but that is only useful while the patient has the virus. Once they beat the disease a serology test would be needed, but none has yet been developed to detect infection in communities.
“We think contact isolation needs to be applied, because some patients present with diarrhea or vomiting, which we think could be the source of the transmission,” Memish said.
Asked if he thought Erasmus had acted wrongly, Fukuda told reporters the WHO was completely focused on detecting the disease and preventing it from spreading further.
“When you have a house burning, you look at how you put the fire out, what do you do, where do you get the water from,” he said. “That’s what we’re worried about right now. Then later on you might look at the neighborhood and the other issues.”