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Virus patent sparks debate at WHO meeting

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The World Health Assembly met last week with the backdrop of worries about pandemic viruses. In Saudi Arabia the coronavirus death toll is rising, and H7N9 is active in China. The outbreaks--and the global response--put the pandemic influenza preparedness (PIP) framework in the spotlight.

An update on the World Health Organization's (WHO) PIP framework was built into the agenda, but its prioritization of global information sharing was made topical by external events. Dutch scientists have patented the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), an action the Saudi Arabian deputy health minister said has delayed diagnostic development. WHO assistant director-general Keiji Fukuda also said the organization is "struggling with diagnostics" because of the dispute, the Associated Press reports. As of last week, MERS-CoV had killed 22 people.

Margaret Chan, who has been appointed for another term as WHO director-general, spoke out against delays to development. "I'm very strong on this. Making deals between scientists because they want to take out IP [intellectual property] and be the first to publish in scientific journals, we cannot allow that. No intellectual property should stand in the way of you protecting your people," Chan said. Bloomberg reports the statement elicited applause from the assembly.

The Dutch scientists who patented the virus denied claims they are impeding research, telling Bloomberg they have shared it freely with more than 40 labs. They also denied having made a deal with any companies. The denial came in response to Saudi Arabia's claims that scientists outside the country had signed contracts with antiviral and vaccine manufacturers.

WHO developed the PIP framework to prevent such problems. The framework calls for sharing of virus strains with an international network involving private companies. Countries then receive equal access to treatments that are developed. GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) has agreed to donate 7.5% of its vaccine production to WHO in the event of a pandemic, becoming the first company to sign a deal under the framework.

- here's the Bloomberg article
- check out the AP's take
- get more in IP-Watch's article

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