WHOSE VIRUS IS IT ANYWAY? University of Hong Kong (HKU) scientists have filed a patent on the Sars-causing coronavirus in the United States, the Asian Wall Street Journal reported this week. How do you patent a virus? Perhaps they want back all the coronaviruses that have spread around the world? HKU microbiologists have claimed to be the first to identify the virus as the Sars pathogen, but the news report didn't really explain what their patent claim, if approved, would amount to. It quoted a US lawyer saying you could obtain patents on viruses in America. (You can, of course, patent anything with the US patents office these days - try figuring out a novel use for sunlight and you can probably get a first claim on the sun itself.) The report also said the Canadians who first decoded the coronavirus' genome have also applied for gene patents south of their border. Whole micro-organisms, including viruses, have been the subject of patents in the US and Europe. In fact, a fair number of your own genes don't belong to you any more, legally speaking. They have been claimed by a handful of drug and biotech companies, mostly in the US but also in Europe and Japan. Luckily, these companies have all suffered losses on their investments and no one has yet figured out a way to make real money out of gene patents. Now that DNA and genomics are passe, the same people will move on to claim intellectual property rights on key proteins, the building blocks of your body. The science is called proteomics, the next big thing in the life sciences. So if you don't, then your children might one day have to pay royalties for their own proteins - and viruses - if these are involved in medical treatment. Welcome to 21st-century capitalism. POINTING FINGERS AND SHAKING HANDS Speaking of HKU, nothing concentrates our minds faster than the sight of a common enemy causing death and havoc. On Tuesday night, Hong Kong's two medical schools - HKU and Chinese University - made a public show of reconciliation, with each granting an honorary professorship to a Sars researcher from the other side. The orders came straight from the top - the university vice-chancellors - not their medical deans. It was an exchange of ambassadors, you might say, and a vow to work together for the public interest. The joint universities' statement read more like a diplomatic rapprochement between two warring states than the usual academic pats on the back. It came after a rather unseemly public squabble, started last month by HKU medical dean Lam Shiu-kum (left). Lam has accused the Chinese University's Prince of Wales Hospital doctors of helping spread the virus into the community through a lack of precautions. This prompted more than 100 Prince of Wales doctors and professors to publish an open letter countering they were not to blame for the outbreak. To rub salt into fresh wounds, Lam enthused on an RTHK radio programme last week about how his Queen Mary Hospital had not had a single medical worker infected while the other hospital - wink wink, we all know which one - practically collapsed from the outbreak. To end the embarrassing row, the head of HKU, Tsui Lap-chee, and his Chinese University counterpart Ambrose King Yeo-chi obviously went over the heads of their top medical professors on Tuesday. And well they should have. THE EYES HAVE IT Sales of eye make-up are up 10-12 per cent while lipsticks are out since the Sars outbreak in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland, according to an Asian Wall Street Journal report that surveyed most of the cosmetic giants. It's that mask thing, you know. The newspaper quoted Red Earth's top man, Adam Horler, as saying the new business emphasis is now on eye products that have traditionally sold much better in North America than in Asia. Also, face masks have gone beyond the Hello Kitty, cheap phase. Hong Kong designer Dorian Ho made a splash at the Australian Fashion Show in Sydney this week when he unveiled a $300 mask in his new spring and summer collection (left). 'My customers don't want to go out in a medical mask as it spoils their whole look,' he said. A CLEAN SWEEP Congratulations are in order for Chief Secretary Donald 'Bow Tie' Tsang Yam-kuen (below). After a glorious public career spanning almost four decades, the man at the pinnacle of our civil service has been given an expanded ministerial portfolio this week that would make him the city's chief garbage man. While his ostensible second-in-line, Antony Leung Kam-chung, the finance chief, has been tasked by his boss Tung Chee-hwa with the small matter of reviving our battered economy, Tsang - who fought off foreign speculators and preserved the peg during the Asian financial meltdown - will use his great abilities to keep Hong Kong's streets clean. 'This is an important project and it is not as simple as street-sweeping,' he said, when asked if he might be too senior for the job. 'Public health is important. There are many aspects of rebuilding work and they cannot be done by one person. What the Chief Executive gave me is challenging.' A bit defensive now, aren't you, Donald?