Middle East Respiratory Symptom coronavirus (MERS-CoV), better known as the new SARS cousin that is efficiently killing people in Saudi Arabia, has been described by the World Health Organization as "a threat to the entire world." Like most deadly diseases — and there seem to be a lot going around these days — finding a cure won't be easy. But there may be one majorly complex — and already controversial — pharmacological debate standing in the way of pressing life-saving treatments: A couple Dutch scientists have already patented part of the disease, and they're not the only ones looking to profit on it.
CNN reports that, to date, there have been 49 known infections of MERS-CoV (formerly known just as NCoV), and 27 have resulted in death — that's 55 percent — with infections reported in five new people in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, three of whom have already died. This virus knows how to kill, which it does by way of pneumonia and eventual kidney failure. "The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself. The novel coronavirus is a threat to the entire world," WHO Director General Margaret Chan said at an intentional meeting this week.
As with bird flu, SARS, ebola, AIDS, and all the other new infectious nightmares before it, MERS-CoV needs a cure. Which seems possible — with one very big hitch. As The Verge's Carl Franzen notes, a group of scientists at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands filed a patent for a sequence in the disease late last year patented a sequence in the disease, a patent that was filed late last year, when the novel coronavirus was still very novel. Now, as Bloomberg's Simeon Bennett reported, critics insist the patent could slow a quick fix, cut off the WHO's international coalition, and bring Big Pharma into the mix too fast. If that sounds like a bad sequel to Contagion or The Constant Gardener, remember that this is very real in Saudia Arabia, where health officials are speaking out against the patent process, as an out-of-country business operation in cahoots with "vaccine companies and antiviral drug companies" that "should not happen." To that, "the Dutch team contends a patent will spur investment from pharmaceutical companies into drugs and vaccines," Franzen reports. As we know, investment and and the pharmaceutical companies take time and money, neither of which the infected in Saudi Arabia have much time for right now.
Yes, then comes the bigger debate about the monetization of healthcare, and scientists who say they're using the free market to spur creation the cure. "If we don't patent it, no company will develop vaccines or diagnostic tests with it, because they won't be able to acquire clear ownership," Ab Osterhaus, one of the Dutch researchers, is quoted as saying over at The New Scientist. And it's sort of grim, though not really surprising, to think that a pharmaceutical company might only get involved if it was going to make money or obtain ownership. Just look at how much is spent on erectile dysfunction each year. And there are probably more people worldwide suffering from ED at the moment than from MERS-CoV. But if some Big Pharma player does get involved, it would stand to reason that the doctors at Erasmus would see a big payday.
As it stands, there is currently no vaccine or medicine to treat the coronavirus. A select team of doctors is testing the effectiveness of available drugs against the disease, while a majority of doctors — as Paul E. Sax, the Clinical Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital points out — wouldn't even know if a MERS-CoV patient was coughing in their face. Sax writes:
If someone walked into our emergency room tomorrow with fever, cough, and respiratory symptoms, would we know how to distinguish MERS-CoV from the hundreds (ok, thousands) of other causes of similar illnesses?
Initially, not a chance. The denominator of people with these complaints is just too gargantuan. It will probably take someone with a particularly severe respiratory illness, along with the appropriate exposure (“He just returned from a 10-day business trip to Riyadh”) for an astute clinician to make the connection.
Of course, Sax is speaking about doctors in the U.S., but his point about sharing knowledge and keeping all international parties informed isn't far off from what WHO officials and critics of the patent have stressed. "Making deals between scientists because they want to take out IP 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 at the WHO meeting. The world's foremost public-health organization, as CNN notes, "is calling for the world to pull together its resources to study and tackle the virus." That presumably includes the guys with the patent in hand, paycheck or no.