Bickering about intellectual property rights is interfering with a concerted global response to a deadly new infectious disease.
Middle East respiratory syndrome is a coronavirus that first emerged in that region last April and has a greater than 50 percent mortality rate. At least 54 people in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia, and the United Kingdom, have now contracted the infectious disease known as MERS-CoV, according to the World Health Organization. Thirty cases have been fatal.
WHO Director General Margaret Chan “closed the annual World Health Assembly [on May 27] sounding alarm about” MERS-CoV, Laurie Garrett, reported at the Council on Foreign Relations website last week. And this week the Obama Administration declared MERS a threat to public health and security, “allowing the Food and Drug Administration to quickly approve testing devices for U.S. citizens living overseas without going through the normal process,” the Hill’s Health Care blog reported.
But the pace of discovery about MERS, for which Garrett notes “there is no cure, rapid diagnostic test, or vaccine,” is troubling, and controversy has erupted in recent weeks over lack of cooperation in the scientific investigation.
Canadian Press writer Helen Branswell reported yesterday:
“More than a year after the first known infections occurred, the world still has no idea where the virus lives in nature, how people are contracting it, how often and under what conditions person-to-person spread occur and whether the genetic sequences of the viruses suggest they are evolving to infect people more easily.”
Branswell reported that some experts blame Saudi Arabian public health officials for being less than forthcoming with crucial data. But others point fingers at a Dutch laboratory that obtained a sample of the virus from a virologist working in Saudi Arabia and established a “material transfer agreement” for its distribution.
“Saudi Arabia’s deputy health minister, Ziad Memish, told the WHO meeting that ‘someone’—a reference to Egyptian virologist Ali Zaki—mailed a sample of the new SARS-like virus out of his country without government consent in June 2012, giving it to Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam.
“The virus was sent out of the country and it was patented, contracts were signed with vaccine companies and anti-viral drug companies, and that’s why they have a MTA to be signed by anybody who can utilize that virus, and that should not happen,” Memish said.
But an Erasmus Medical Center press release denied those charges:
“The Viroscience Department of Erasmus MC strongly refutes all allegations concerning a presumed lack of willingness to cooperate in research into the new MERS coronavirus. The virus has already been sent free of charge to many public research and health institutions that can work with it safely and, like the Viroscience department, serve public health worldwide. It should be clear that a virus cannot be patented, only specific applications related to it, like vaccines and medicines. Rumours that the Viroscience department of Erasmus MC would hamper research into the MERS coronavirus are clearly wrong and not based on facts.”
AAAS Science Insider reported that “there is nothing unusual about the arrangement under which Fouchier has shared samples of the virus … And so far, nobody has offered concrete examples of how the legal arrangements have slowed down research.”
Indeed, the World Health Organization and the Saudi Arabian public health officials seem to be emerging as the antagonists in the drama. Science Insider reported that Zaki said he was fired, his Jeddah lab closed, and all its material destroyed.
And Canadian Press’s Branswell reported:
“Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said it is clear Saudi health authorities either don’t know what is going on with the MERS virus or are sitting on data for some reason. ‘They have to know more. They just have to know more. And to suggest that they don’t means that it’s either an incompetent investigation, or they’re withholding information,’ Osterholm said.”
In more optimistic infectious disease news this week, Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity announced a first-of-its-kind collaboration with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Starting this summer, the international team of scientists will jointly operate a lab in China to “conduct surveillance, identify new infectious microbes, establish novel platforms for diagnostics, and develop drugs and vaccines to treat diseases in humans and animals.”
In particular, the team, led by renowned Columbia University virus researcher Ian Lipkin and Chinese scientist Xiao-ping Dong, says it will “work side-by-side developing solutions for pandemic threats to global health,” including MERS-CoV. (Lipkin told CNN last week that his analysis of the sequence of MERS-CoV indicates that it “might have originated in a bat” “probably somewhere in the Middle East.”)
“This historic agreement comes at a crucial time. International collaboration is needed in the face of infectious disease outbreaks with the potential to rapidly cross borders and spread around the world,” Dong said in a statement. Or understatement.