Dispute erupts over novel coronavirus patent claims

saudi arabia coronavirus who patent dutch (steve hicks)

A dispute has erupted between leading research scientists and international health officials, following a declaration by Saudi Arabia's deputy health minister that the country had struggled to develop diagnostic tests for the novel coronavirus because the Dutch scientists who identified it had patented the virus outside of the country. According to Reuters, deputy health minister Ziad Memish told the World Health Assembly in Geneva that the virus had been sent from the country without proper permission, and as such the country had been slow to develop diagnostics and investigate the epidemic of the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV). “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,” he said (BBC). “I think strongly that the delay in the development of … diagnostic procedures is related to the patenting of the virus.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned countries to not allow commercial labs to profit from the virus, and highlighted the need to share information. “Making deals between scientists because they want to take IP, because they want to be the world’s first to publish in scientific journals, these are issues we need to address,” said WHO Director General Margaret Chan (Reuters). “No IP will stand in the way of public health actions.” With regard to the case raised by Saudi Arabia, she added: “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.” (BBC)

However, the Dutch scientists first identified and patented the MERS coronavirus defended their actions, saying that patenting the virus a normal thing to do. "We're still sharing this virus with everyone who wants to do public health research," said Albert Osterhaus, a virologist at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. The scientists say that have shared it freely with over 40 laboratories worldwide (Bloomberg). "Diagnostic tests were developed instantly and were made freely available immediately to anyone who asked for them," said Osterhaus.

The scientists also argued that patenting the virus was important for accelerating the development of vaccines. "Industry would not be interested if there was a patent minefield," said Osterhaus.

According to the WHO, 22 deaths and 44 cases have been reported worldwide since 2012, with cases of the novel coronavirus detected in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, the UK and France.

What do you think? Do you think patenting viral sequences is a "normal thing to do" and essential for gaining industry interest, or do you think intellectual property legislation should not be allowed to stand in the way of global health? You can leave a comment in the box below, or on LinkedIn group discussion. Want more from Vaccine Nation? Sign up to our newsletter for free here.

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