Poor countries may patent bird virus strains

Licensing could help lower prices for new vaccines, treatment

Published: Friday, Aug. 25 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

Poorer countries where bird flu is spreading may patent individual strains of the virus as a way to help them negotiate lower prices for vaccines and treatments.

The plan is being advanced by a new program, announced today, that urges participating countries to place genetic information about their individual bird flu strains into central databases in return for rights that will allow the countries to control who uses the data.

While nations such as Indonesia have been increasingly willing to share such information, government leaders have expressed concern they may not be able to afford the products that result. The new program would help countries charge for information involving their individual strains, or negotiate low prices for drugs and tests developed from the data.

"This is an independent effort to bring scientists together to collaborate, share data and put in place some protections that will also be good for the countries of origin of the flu strains," said Nancy Cox, head of the CDC's influenza branch, in a telephone interview yesterday.

International researchers have expressed concern with getting access to data from the countries in which the virus has been found. For instance, China recently revealed that it had a bird flu death in late 2003, two years before officially revealing any infections to the WHO.

Timely information

Companies need timely information about mutations in H5N1 flu strains to design defenses against a deadly pandemic that may occur if the virus gains the ability to spread among people. In a letter to the journal Nature released today, about 70 scientists — including Cox, representatives of United Nations health agencies, and six Nobel Prize winners — supported the new program, called the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data.

Under their own patent laws, countries can take ownership of rights to biological organisms isolated from their residents and poultry and decide which companies or researchers use them. International legal groups such as the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization, an agency of the United Nations, help protect those rights.

In the past, countries have not protected rights to virus strains used to create vaccines for seasonal flu, Cox said.

"There's been a tradition developed over the years where the flu viruses isolated anywhere in the world were considered to be part of the global domain," she said. "If we had concerns about intellectual property, we wouldn't be able to update the annual vaccine in a timely manner."

Deadlier potential

The much deadlier potential of H5N1 may change that thinking as developing nations become more concerned about getting pandemic vaccine than seasonal vaccine, Cox said.

The H5N1 virus has killed millions of birds and infected at least 241 people, 141 of whom have died. Scientists are concerned that millions more people may die if H5N1 mutates into a form that spreads easily from human to human.

The new program will collaborate with Cambia, a Canberra, Australia-based non-profit research organization, and Science Commons, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to write agreements and patents that will allow the flu strains to be shared, said Peter Bogner, the program's director.

"Intellectual property is the most important part of this," he said yesterday in a telephone interview. Bogner said his background is in licensing media, and that he became involved in a health-care project for the first time because of the threat of a pandemic.

Public databases

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