While closing the World Health Assembly on May 27, Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), declared that an outbreak caused by a new coronavirus (a type of virus associated with respiratory illness) had become “a threat to the entire world.” Chan is right to be worried: the disease she was talking about, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), is deadly. And it is not just a health challenge. The outbreak has also led to a global legal controversy over ownership and sharing of dangerous viruses -- issues that Chan has promised to investigate.
On June 13, 2012, a hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, admitted a patient suffering from pneumonia and renal failure who died without an identified cause. A consulting physician, Ali Zaki, sent blood and sputum samples from the patient to the Saudi Ministry of Health, but tests for influenza and other viruses came back negative. Zaki then sent samples to the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, which identified the culprit as a new coronavirus.
On September 20, Zaki circulated news of the discovery through ProMED-mail, a disease early-warning listserve. Using this information, physicians in London soon diagnosed a MERS infection in a patient from Qatar who had traveled to Saudi Arabia. Zaki and Erasmus researchers published their findings on the Saudi case and the novel coronavirus in mid-October. By the end of November, WHO was aware of nine confirmed cases -- five in Saudi Arabia, two in Qatar, and two in Jordan. Five of the nine patients had died.
Soon, Erasmus started sharing coronavirus samples with other laboratories across the world under a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA), which is a contract commonly used when laboratories share pathogens. It had also applied for a patent in the Netherlands on the gene sequence of the new coronavirus. With that patent, Erasmus planned to facilitate possible development of diagnostics, vaccines, or antiviral medications for MERS. Saudi Arabia was not happy. Officials argued that Zaki had violated Saudi rules and procedures report from an urgent WHO-led meeting on the new coronavirus in January 2013 did not address the issue, though, and WHO declined to comment about the dispute.
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