Don't let profit stall fight against disease

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 June, 2013, 1:36am

Nothing unites the world more than fighting disease. Despite differences in culture, religion and politics, countries today are closer than ever in fighting viruses and bacteria that can kill. The protection of public health is both a goal and a responsibility. Each country should work harder to ensure citizens' well-being and, ultimately, the good of mankind. This is particularly important in the wake of two newly discovered deadly viruses - the novel coronavirus in the Middle East and a new bird flu strain, H7N9, in China.

Unfortunately, international efforts to combat the coronavirus have been stalled by confusing rules and competition for potentially profitable rights to disease samples. A Saudi microbiologist sent the first virus sample for testing to a Dutch laboratory, which later patented how it synthesised the germ and required other researchers who wanted the sample to sign agreements that could trigger a payment. The Saudi health authorities were not aware of the discovery of the virus until three months later, delaying the development of diagnostic kits and blood tests. Although the lab clarified that the use of the virus for research and public health purposes was not restricted, the World Health Organisation was said to be struggling with diagnostics because of property rights concerns and ill-defined rules for sharing the material.

That the issue of intellectual property rights comes before an urgency to combat the disease is unacceptable. It sits oddly with the international obligation to protect public health. At the WHO assembly in Geneva, director general Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun rightly warned against arrangements that enable individuals to profit and prevent rapid sharing of information.

The urgency for countries to stay united and co-operate cannot be overstated. Although the two new diseases appear to be under control, and human-to-human infections remain limited, the relatively high death rates are still a cause for concern. Confirmation by University of Hong Kong researchers that H7N9 can be transmitted by close contact as well as airborne exposure has renewed fears that the new bird flu strain is far more dangerous than it seems.

The anniversary of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome 10 years ago is a good reminder that a threat in a region may soon become a threat to all. The guard against the two new viruses must not be dropped. Transparency, vigilance and co-operation are essential to keep diseases at bay.