* Saudi Arabia says patent delayed development of tests
* WHO chief tells countries they must share specimens
* Saudis announce 17th death from virus
By Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, May 23 The World Health Organization
(WHO) warned countries with possible cases of the SARS-like
novel coronavirus on Thursday that they must share information
and not allow commercial labs to profit from the virus, which
has killed 22 people worldwide.
Saudi Arabia, where the first case occurred, has said the
development of diagnostic tests for the disease has been delayed
by a foreign laboratory's patent rights on the SARS-like virus.
"Making deals between scientists because they want to take
IP (intellectual property), because they want to be the world's
first to publish in scientific journals, these are issues we
need to address," WHO Director General Margaret Chan told health
ministers attending the WHO's annual conference in Geneva.
"No IP will stand in the way of public health actions."
The virus was identified in September last year, three
months after a scientist took a sample from Saudi Arabia to the
Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands.
"There was a lag of three months where we were not aware of
the discovery of the virus," Saudi Arabia's Deputy Health
Minister Ziad Memish told the Geneva meeting.
He said it was taken out of the country without permission
and Saudi Arabia only learned of its discovery from ProMED, a
U.S.-based internet-based reporting system.
The Rotterdam-based Erasmus lab then patented the process
for synthesising the virus, meaning that anyone else who wanted
to use their method to study it would have to pay the lab.
The patenting had delayed the development of diagnostic kits
and serologic tests for the disease, Memish said.
"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 (Material Transfer
Agreement) to be signed by anybody who can utilise that virus
and that should not happen."
Earlier on Thursday, Saudi Arabia announced another death
from the virus in its central al-Qassim region, bringing the
total number of deaths in the kingdom to 17.
Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, France and
Britain have all had cases of the the virus.
Chan told the health ministers "you are the boss" and urged
them to ensure scientists shared their specimens with WHO's
network of collaborating laboratories.
The patent does not break WHO rules on sharing such
information on a possible pandemic, which only apply to flu
viruses, but there is a legal requirement for countries to
notify WHO of any outbreak of disease of international concern.
Keiji Fukuda, WHO's assistant director-general for health
security, said there was still a "huge amount" unknown about the
virus and great concern about its potential to spread.
Among the gaps in the knowledge of the virus was information
about its geographical spread, and many countries may only have
minimal surveillance for the disease, he said.
The only test for the disease is the widely-available PCR
(Polymerase Chain Reaction), but that is only useful while the
patient has the virus. Once they beat the disease a serology
test would be needed, but none has yet been developed to detect
infection in communities.
"We think contact isolation needs to be applied, because
some patients present with diarrhoea or vomiting, which we think
could be the source of the transmission," Memish said.
Asked if he thought Erasmus had acted wrongly, Fukuda told
reporters the WHO was completely focused on detecting the
disease and preventing it from spreading further.
"When you have a house burning, you look at how you put the
fire out, what do you do, where do you get the water from," he
said. "That's what we're worried about right now. Then later on
you might look at the neighbourhood and the other issues."
(Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay; editing by