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Killer Mers coronavirus: Discovery by Saudi Arabia could help combat disease

Saudi scientists map the genetic make-up of the virus, which has killed more than 25 people. Elizabeth Dickinson reports

ABU DHABI // Saudi Arabia's health ministry has mapped the genetic make-up of the deadly Mers-CoV virus, which could accelerate the development of rapid diagnostic methods and possible treatments.

The Saudi health ministry called the sequencing of the virus, based on samples taken from Al Ahsa governate, "a positive step".

By posting the sequencing on its database, the US National Centre for Biotechnology Information confirmed the mapping of the virus, which has killed 26 people in Saudi Arabia.

"We may have turned a corner here in terms of improved collaboration between WHO [World Health Organisation], Saudi Arabia, and the international public health community, and that's a good thing," said David P Fidler, an expert on biotech intellectual property at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law.

Fifty-five laboratory-confirmed cases of Mers-CoV, a virus distantly related to the Sars virus that swept through Asia between 2002 and 2003, have so far been detected in nine countries.

The latest research was completed by seven scientists, including Saudi Arabia's deputy health minister, Ziad Memish, through collaboration between the Saudi health ministry, University College London (UCL) and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (WTSI).

The new sequencing work is in the public domain and would not be governed by any pending patent, meaning it may circumvent concerns that scientific research on the virus had been slowed by a patent application filed by the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands after identifying it in 2012.

Still, the new sequencing work will likely fuel further debate about patenting biological material related to outbreaks. Dr Memish has criticised Erasmus for seeking a patent on the Mers-CoV sequence, derived from a sample obtained in the kingdom, without consulting Riyadh.

But others have argued that Saudi Arabia was not transparent with information about the virus, said Mr Fidler.

"Erasmus is not the only source ... the UK has isolated it [the virus], the WHO apparently has samples, and Saudi is the epicentre. What about these other suppliers? How widely are they sharing the virus? We don't know."

Following a similar intellectual property dispute during the H1N1 flu pandemic, members of WHO signed a Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) Framework in 2011 to govern the sharing and patenting of scientific information related to outbreaks. But the new coronavirus is not a flu and is not governed by the agreement.

Asked about the patent debate for Mers-CoV, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told The National: "The more sequences that are in the public domain, the better, as that helps us to better understanding how the virus might or might not be evolving."


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