I have been severely critical (many posts among those here) of the Indonesian government’s irresponsible assertions of ownership of potentially pandemic pathogenic viruses isolated from their citizens. The question of Intellectual Property is a difficult one in many instances but when it comes to a public good involving a global scourge, some of the gray areas become more black and white. The world has been struggling with the issue regarding the global influenza surveillance system for two years now, precipitated by Indonesia’s refusal to cooperate any longer, resulting in a significant gap in scientific knowledge about the genetics and biology of avian influenza in humans. Indonesia is now the world’s hotspot for the disease so its non-cooperation is a potentially serious problem.
Hence the news, revealed by Ed Hammond, that the US CDC and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, are stoking the fires of resentment by their own irresponsible and outrageous behavior is more than dismaying. It is utterly infuriating:
In a development that is likely to raise more pressing questions about reform of the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance Network (GISN), an international patent application has surfaced in which the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and US National Institutes of Health claim ownership of Indonesian influenza genes.
A recent patent search has revealed that the CDC, which is a WHO collaborating centre, is applying for a patent for a new vaccine against influenza, particularly for bird flu (H5N1). The vaccine incorporates genes from a H5N1 strain isolated from an Indonesian human victim of bird flu in 2005.
The strain that contains the genes was transferred to the WHO GISN by Indonesia for characterization for public health purposes, but may wind up as the property of the US government.
Under US law, the US government agencies would offer licenses to the technology to pharmaceutical companies. The patent application indicates that the US government intends to pursue the claim in most countries of the world, including Indonesia itself, as well as neighboring countries.
The application was first lodged in the United States on 16 February 2006, and then filed with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) on 16 February 2007. It was first published as application WO2007/100584 on 7 September 2007 on a WIPO internet database, but is only now coming into public light.
The US patent claims are especially relevant to the ongoing discussions of the WHO Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Inter-Governmental Meeting (WHO PIP IGM). The WHO PIP IGM was formed by the World Health Assembly in 2007, in response to developing country concerns about the WHO GISN, particularly the appropriation of GISN materials for making commercial vaccines that are costly and un-affordable to developing countries, and a lack of benefit sharing related to influenza viruses. The next negotiating session of the PIP IGM is scheduled to begin in Geneva on 9 November.
The question of WHO Collaborating Centres asserting patents related to WHO system viruses has been raised repeatedly in the PIP IGM’s deliberations. In addition to the US CDC, there is evidence that another US-based WHO Collaborating Centre, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, has improperly capitalized on its WHO status in order to make proprietary claims.
According to sources, in a closed session at the WHO Interdisciplinary Working Group on Pandemic Influenza Preparedness, convened in Singapore from 31 July through 4 August 2007, the Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre at the US CDC stated to governments that the Centre had no interest in patents related to GISN materials. The Working Group meeting took place more than a year after the US CDC filed for patent related to the Indonesian, Thai, Hong Kong, and Korean H5N1 genes.(Ed Hammond, Third World Network)
The CDC patent application is for a DNA vaccine. In this technology, DNA sequences that code for viral proteins are injected into the subject’s cells, using various kinds of technologies. Once inside the human cells in the person being vaccinated, the cell’s own protein synthesizing machinery makes viral protein which is seen by the immune system and antibodies produced. Some of the patent covers genetic tweaking of the Indonesian virus (and some other viruses) to enhance this process. But access to the relevant genes is possible because both CDC and St. Jude’s are WHO Collaborating Centers, i.e., among a handful of laboratories that receive influenza virus strains from all over the world for characterization, research, and as a source of vaccine seed strains. These seed strains are made available to pharmaceutical companies, free of charge, who then make vaccines from them, vaccines that the virus donor countries fear they will not be able to afford. Now we find these two WHO reference laboratories are improperly taking advantage of their status as Collaborating Centers to potentially profit by privatizing the “property” freely given to them by impoverished countries like Indonesia.
Maybe there is more to this story than appears in this account. If so, let’s hear it from CDC and St. Jude’s. Because what we see is something that is so inimical to ethical standards it demands a public defense — if there is one. These institutions have world class scientists who wouldn’t dream of committing scientific misconduct. Apparently they don’t mind committing public health misconduct, however. If even some of this is true, they are bringing shame and deserved loss of credibility and trust onto their respective institutions and themselves.
I am disgusted.