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Patent fights loom over SARS genes, care options
No one wants to be left out
No sooner had public health officials lauded the international scientific cooperation that led to the discovery of a new Coronavirus as the cause of the highly contagious and deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS),1 than scientists from the different communities lined up to ensure they wouldn’t be left out in the cold when it comes time to profit from their discoveries.
According to a report in the May 5 Wall Street Journal,2 scientists in Canada, Hong Kong, and the United States all have filed patent applications for all or parts of the new pathogen.
Scientists in Canada who decoded the genetic makeup of the virus have filed a patent application in the United States seeking legal rights to all of the virus’ genes. Hong Kong scientists who first viewed the virus under a microscope are seeking to secure a patient on the virus itself. The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also submitted a patent for its specific findings about the SARS virus.
The filings, if granted, could give patent holders exclusive rights to develop certain diagnostic tests, drugs, or vaccines to treat SARS.
In the early days of the AIDS crisis, scientific bickering over credit for key scientific discoveries, including the isolation of the HIV virus itself, delayed development of a diagnostic test.1
Now the World Health Organization credits the "unprecedented" international cooperation of scientists, who agreed to openly share information, with the rapid isolation of the SARS virus and the development of early tests used to diagnose the disease.
Scientists now applying for SARS patents say they are merely protecting their right to continue to work on the virus or are responding to the patent filings of others.
University of Hong Kong researcher Malik Peiris, MD, whose research team was the first to spot the virus under the microscope, told the Journal that he and his colleagues sent samples of the virus to several other researchers without a thought to patent rights. But when others decided to file, he decided they should also.
"Why should we leave the field open to others," he told the newspaper. "If no one else was filing patients, I don’t think we would have."
Not all SARS researchers are comfortable with the idea of patenting information they feel should be in the public domain and used for the public good.
Marco Marra, PhD, the head of the Canadian research team working on the virus’ gene sequence, told the Journal he doesn’t want his name on a patent application — and by doing, so he is forgoing any of the 50% of licensing revenues his agency normally allocates to inventors.
Genes should not be subject to patents because they are not true inventions and are now easily sequenced, he said.
1. Regalado A. Scientists hunt for SARS cure turns to race for patent rights. Wall Street Journal. May 5, 2003. Page 1.
2. Altman L. Lessons of AIDS applied to SARS. New York Times. May 6, 2003. Page D1.