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Patent Application On MERS Creates Questions For Cooperative Medical Research

At the closing session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) on May 27, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said an outbreak of a newly identified virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), is “a threat to the entire world.” At the meeting, controversy emerged because researchers at Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, who first identified the virus, had applied for a patent on the virus’s genetic sequence and were sharing virus samples under a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA). The Saudi Arabian government and some researchers claimed the patent application and Erasmus were hindering research on MERS, but Erasmus defended its actions. The following editorial and opinion piece discuss issues surrounding the patent application for MERS.

  • The Lancet: “Many unanswered questions remain about MERS-CoV, including the source of, and main risk factors for, infection. A collaborative global research effort will help close the gaps in knowledge,” the editorial states. The news of the patent application “has caused consternation,” according to the editorial, which writes, “The researchers have publicly responded to say that they have sent the virus free of charge to many public research and health institutions and they will continue to do so. They have told media that they applied for a patent to ensure companies invest in making diagnostics, vaccines, and antiviral medication. Let us hope their expectations prove correct.” The Lancet concludes, “Free information sharing, trust, and research cooperation will be crucial to aid prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of this evolving global health threat” (6/8).
  • David Fidler, Foreign Policy: “This dispute raises three broad legal issues,” Fidler, a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, writes. “The first involves information sharing: MERS triggers obligations under the International Health Regulations (2005), a treaty binding on all WHO members, to notify WHO of disease events that might constitute a public health emergency of international concern (MERS qualifies) and to share with WHO information about such events”; “[s]econd, the controversy involves disputes about ownership of the MERS virus, and the implications of ownership on the international response to the outbreak”; and the third “involves the claims that the Erasmus MTA and patent application are hindering research on, and responses to, the MERS virus and outbreak,” he states, expanding on each point. If Chan “investigate[s] the legal implications of the MERS outbreak as she promised … the undertaking will be fraught with problems and could worsen the global legal imbroglio that has already flared up. Right now, with MERS a threat to the entire world, it is not a problem we are going to lawyer away,” he concludes (6/7).