By Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay
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 Andrew Roche)