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In Discussion Of MERS-CoV At WHA, WHO DG Says Patents Will Not Hinder Public Health

“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,” Bloomberg Businessweek reports. “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,” according to the WHO, the news service notes (Bennett, 5/23). “Saudi Arabia, where the first case occurred, has said the development of diagnostic tests for the disease has been delayed by [Erasmus Medical Center’s] patent rights on the SARS-like virus” after a viral sample “was taken out of the country without permission,” Reuters writes. “There was a lag of three months where we were not aware of the discovery of the virus,” Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Health Minister Ziad Memish said at the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva, the news agency notes (Miles/Nebehay, 5/23).

At the meeting of the WHO’s governing body, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan “railed against the arrangement, which seemed to take some in the assembly hall by surprise,” the Associated Press writes, adding, “She pleaded with the hundreds of health officials at the annual [WHA] to ‘share your specimens with WHO collaborating centers, not in a bilateral manner'” (Heilprin, 5/23). According to Bloomberg, Chan continued, “Please, I’m very strong on this. … Making deals between scientists because they want to take out [intellectual property (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 news service notes, “The assembly applauded.” Bloomberg adds, “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.” Osterhaus said “[t]he suggestion that the patent was impeding progress in public health was ‘definitely not the case,'” according to Bloomberg (5/23). “Asked if he thought Erasmus had acted wrongly, [Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director-general for health security,] told reporters the WHO was completely focused on detecting the disease and preventing it from spreading further,” Reuters writes (5/23).