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World Health Organization says it will investigate patent on deadly Saudi Arabian virus

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MERS virus (Credit: CDC)
MERS virus (Credit: CDC)

Dutch scientists are facing criticism from international health officials for filing a patent on one strain of a deadly Middle Eastern virus, and now the World Health Organization has said it will investigate the matter. "No intellectual property should stand in the way of protecting your people," said WHO Director General Margaret Chen at a health conference in Switzerland earlier this week, as Bloomberg reported.

"No intellectual property should stand in the way of protecting your people."

Patents on emerging viruses are rare, but the Dutch scientists who filed this patent are also the ones who first identified the new respiratory virus, called MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus), after it emerged in Saudi Arabia late last year. They argue that the patent is necessary to encourage investment by private pharmaceutical companies in developing vaccines and treatments for the virus. They also say that they have shared their findings with labs around the world for free, and will continue to do so. "The virus has already been sent free of charge to many public research and health institutions that can work with it safely and, like the Viroscience department, serve public health worldwide," reads a statement released today by the Erasmus Medical Center Viroscience Department in the Netherlands.

In fact, Erasmus denied that it had patented the virus itself, instead saying that it had only filed patents on "specific applications," such as "vaccines and medicines." "Rumors that the Viroscience department of Erasmus MC would hamper research into the MERS coronavirus are clearly wrong and not based on facts," the statement added.

"clearly wrong and not based on facts."

MERS starts as a cold, progresses to pneumonia and severe respiratory symptoms, and eventually causes organ failure and death. It's killed 22 people and infected 44 so far, spreading from travelers who left the Middle East to others in France, Germany, Tunisia and the United Kingdom. Several hospital workers have been among those infected. There is some evidence that it can be passed between humans, raising the potential for a pandemic. Whether researchers around the globe are able to come together and find a cure remains to be seen, but the patent issue adds another level of complication.