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EPIDEMICS
SARS-like virus patent complicating diagnosis: Saudi
by Staff Writers
Geneva (AFP) May 23, 2013


WHO voices deep concern over spread of SARS-like virus
Geneva (AFP) May 23, 2013 - The World Health Organization voiced deep concern Thursday over the SARS-like virus that has killed 22 people in less than a year, saying it might potentially spread more widely between humans.

"We have a high level of concern over the potential... for this virus to have sustainable person-to-person spread," WHO deputy chief Keiji Fukuda told diplomats gathered in Geneva for the World Health Assembly, the UN agency's decision-making body.

There has already been evidence of limited transmission between humans, and last week the WHO said two Saudi health workers had contracted the deadly coronavirus from patients -- the first evidence of transmission in a hospital setting.

But Fukuda said the WHO was looking into "whether this has the potential to have a more extensive spread, more extensive transmission."

Given the high fatality rate relative to the number of cases, experts have highlighted the power of the virus and the frightening prospect of its mutating into a form that leaps easily from human to human.

Fukuda's comments came after Saudi Arabia on Wednesday said another person had died from the virus. With a total death toll of 17, it has been the hardest hit by the disease that first emerged last June.

So far, there have been 44 lab-confirmed cases worldwide, half of them fatal, with 30 infections in Saudi Arabia and the rest spread across Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Britain and France.

Most of the patients infected in Europe and Tunisia had links to or had travelled in the Middle East.

The WHO said Thursday the virus, which until now has been known as the novel coronavirus, or nCoV-EMC, had been redubbed the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS CoV).

The virus is a cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which triggered a scare 10 years ago when it erupted in east Asia, leaping to humans from animal hosts and eventually killing some 800 people.

Like SARS, the new virus appears to cause an infection deep in the lungs, with patients suffering from a temperature, cough and breathing difficulty, but it differs from SARS in that it also causes rapid kidney failure.

Saudi Arabia lamented Thursday that foreign drug companies had patented the new SARS-like virus that has killed 22 people worldwide in less than a year, slowing down the diagnosis process considerably.

"We are still struggling with diagnostics and the reason is that the virus was patented by scientists and is not allowed to be used for investigations by other scientists," said Saudi Deputy Health Minister Ziad Memish.

He told diplomats gathered in Geneva for the World Health Assembly, the UN health agency's decision-making body, that the coronavirus that first emerged last June had been "sent out of the country."

"It was patented, and contracts were signed with vaccine companies and anti-viral drug companies" which now need to give their approval every time another lab wants to use the virus, he said.

"I think strongly that the delay in the development of .... diagnostic procedures is related to the patenting of the virus," Memish said.

WHO chief Margaret Chan expressed outrage at the information.

"Why would your scientists send specimens out to other laboratories on a bilateral manner and allow other people to take intellectual property right on new disease?" she asked.

"Any new disease is full of uncertainty," she said, urging the WHO's 194 member states to only share "viruses and specimens with WHO collaborating centres, ... not in a bilateral manner."

"I will follow it up. I will look at the legal implications together with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. No IP (intellectual property) should stand in the way of you, the countries of the world, to protect your people," she told the delegates to thundering applause.

So far, there have been 44 lab-confirmed cases worldwide of the virus which until now has been known as the novel coronavirus, or nCoV-EMC, but which this week was redubbed the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS CoV).

Saudi Arabia by far counts the most cases, with 30 confirmed infections and 17 fatalities, while cases have also been detected in Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Britain and France.

The virus is a cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which triggered a scare 10 years ago when it erupted in east Asia, leaping to humans from animal hosts and eventually killing some 800 people.

Like SARS, the new virus appears to cause an infection deep in the lungs, with patients suffering from a temperature, cough and breathing difficulty, but it differs from SARS in that it also causes rapid kidney failure.

Memish stressed Thursday that a lot of uncertainty remains around how the virus spreads and what symptoms to look for, pointing out that some patients have instead of respiratory difficulties shown signs like diarrhoea and vomiting.

He also said diagnoses were problematic and in some cases tests needed to be performed two or even three times.

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