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Fact check: List of US patents is not evidence that viruses are manmade

A list of patents linked to specific diseases and viruses is being shared with the suggestion that it is proof that viruses are manmade. This is false, and a misinterpretation of the types of patent listed.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

Shared as an image in a Facebook post on Oct. 15 (here), the list contains a mix of diseases and specific viruses: AIDS, H1N1, Ebola, swine flu (the disease caused by H1N1), BSE, Zika, SARS, and coronavirus. Underneath each item is a patent number. The Facebook user comments in the caption: “Viruses can ONLY be patented if they are MAN MADE. Read that again xxx.”

The patenting of naturally occurring material is a complex area (here) but the list of patent numbers used to illustrate the claim in the social media post either do not correspond to the virus or disease listed, or have been taken out of context.

For example, the first item on the list is AIDS, the syndrome caused by HIV, and has named underneath ‘US-Patent 5676977’. But this is not an AIDS patent; rather, it is a patent from the 1990s for tetrasilver tetroxide molecular crystal devices that the patent applicants had hoped would be able to effectively cure AIDS (here) . It has now expired (here) .

The second patent, US-Patent 8835624, is listed under H1N1. But this not a patent for this virus, which causes swine flu. In fact, it is referring to an aptamer – a molecule that binds to other target molecules. Scientists wanted to use this specific aptamer to identify the H1N1 virus (here) .

The rest of the listed patents are as follows:

:: Ebola (US-Patent 20120251502)

This refers to EboBun, a new strain of Ebola that was identified and isolated in a patient in Uganda and led to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) applying for a patent. By doing so, the CDC said it would be able to “grant rights to use the virus strain for the commercialization of diagnostics, vaccines, and antibody/antigen testing, and make them more quickly and readily available to patients, doctors and research scientists. Another reason for patenting is to ensure that another entity does not acquire a patent in a similar space and restrict the beneficial uses of the invention”.

In other words, the application to patent the biological strain was to ensure further research could be carried out on it. It was not man made (here) . The patent has since been abandoned (here) .

:: Swine flu (US-Patent CA2741523 A1)

This patent is also related to EboBun – not swine flu (H1N1), like the Facebook post suggests. As earlier described, EboBun is a biological strain of Ebola – and is therefore not manmade. Its patent status is still pending (here) .

:: BSE (US-Patent 0070031450 A1)

Reuters could not find any evidence of a patent registered under this number. Unlike the other items on the list, BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) is not a virus nor a disease caused by virus.

:: Zika (ATTC VR-84 Rockefeller Foundation)

The first part of this listing appears to be a typing error for ATCC - the American Type Culture Collection – which is a non-profit resource for biological materials. It distributes microorganisms, cell lines, and other materials for further research by scientists (here) .

VR-84 is the name of the Zika virus strain as listed on the ATCC website. This is not equivalent to a patent (here) .

The Rockefeller Foundation has also addressed claims that it patented the virus, confirming this is not true. It explained that a foundation-supported centre first discovered Zika in Entebbe, Uganda in 1947, and later gave a sample to ATCC.

“There is no indication that The Rockefeller Foundation holds or has filed for any patent on the Zika virus or has received any royalties or payments,” the foundation said in a statement (here) .

:: SARS (US-Patent 7897744 & 8506968)

The first patent is for the genomic sequences of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) coronavirus. This does not mean the applicant, the Public Health Agency of Canada, made the virus; rather it identified its composition. The patent listing says this information could be used for diagnosing or treating SARS-related illnesses (here) .

The second patent number listed is for a vaccine composition that could be used in preventing infection with a disease such as SARS or treating the infection (here) . The composition includes viral particles that have been modified, but this is not the same as claiming the original virus is manmade.

:: Coronavirus (US-Patent 10130701)

Coronavirus is an umbrella term for different types of viruses that can be found in humans and animals (here) .This patent, however, taken out by the Pirbright Institute, is for a type of weakened coronavirus to be used as a possible vaccine for respiratory diseases in animals (here, here) . Again this does not mean the original virus was manmade.

In summary, the list of patents presented is not evidence that viruses including H1N1, Zika and Ebola are manmade. The patents instead relate to naturally occurring virus material that has been isolated by scientists (as in the first SARS example), naturally occurring virus material that has been modified by scientists (as in the coronavirus example) or a different material altogether (as in the AIDS example). There is debate in the scientific world around the issue of whether naturally occurring material can be patented, and it what circumstances (here) but there is no question that the viruses and diseases listed in this post are products of nature.

VERDICT

False. It is generally true to say that naturally occurring material cannot be patented, while a version modified by man can. However, sometimes such modifications may be very slight, or use a new method to isolate biological material. This, however, does not mean that viruses are manmade, and the list of patents in the post does not challenge this fact.

Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .

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