International efforts to combat a new Sars-like virus that has killed 22 people are being slowed by the fact that a Dutch laboratory has patented copies of the pathogen in its search for potentially profitable rights to disease samples, the head of the World Health Organisation has warned.
Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, in a blunt warning to the UN agency's annual global assembly, portrayed a previously little-known flap over who owns a sample of the virus as a global game changer that could put people's lives at risk. The virus, which first emerged in Saudi Arabia where most cases have arisen, is called MERS, for Middle East respiratory syndrome.
"Please, I'm very strong on this point," she said. "Tell your scientists in your country, because you're the boss. You're the national authority. Why would your scientists send specimens out to other laboratories on a bilateral manner and allow other people to take intellectual property rights on a new disease?"
The controversy stems from a sample taken by Saudi microbiologist Ali Mohamed Zaki that he mailed last year to virologist Ron Fouchier at the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands.
Fouchier tested, sequenced and identified it last September as a new virus. His private medical centre patented how it synthesised the germ and required researchers who wanted samples to first sign an agreement that could trigger a payment.
Saudi Arabia, which had the first case, said the patenting delayed its development of diagnostic kits and blood tests. "There was a lag of three months where we were not aware of the discovery of the virus," Deputy Health Minister Ziad Memish told the Geneva assembly. He said the sample was sent to the Dutch lab without official permission.
There is no blood test for detecting infection in communities. He said patients need to be isolated because diarrhoea or vomiting may help spread the germ.
Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO's assistant director general for health security, said his agency had been "struggling with diagnostics" because of property rights concerns and ill-defined international rules for sharing such materials.
Chan railed against any arrangement that could prevent rapid sharing of information or that would enable individual scientists or private labs to profit.
WHO officials say the delays involve blood and other tests, though a few other facilities in Canada, Britain and Germany have samples.
Fouchier, however, said the agreements between individual countries are similar to those within WHO's networks. "There are no restrictions to the use of the virus for research and public health purposes. There are only restrictions for commercial exploitation and forwarding virus to third parties."
Any delays claimed by WHO are a misconception, he said. "After the first identification of the virus, diagnostic tests were developed in collaboration with several public health laboratories, and these tests were distributed free to everyone around the world who asked for them," Fouchier added. "We have not denied access to the virus."
MERS has killed half its 44 victims, mostly in Saudi Arabia. Fukuda said evidence in some of the disease clusters points to limited spread between people. The WHO has said some cases suggest the virus may already be spreading in the community.