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Poor countries may patent bird virus strains

Licensing could help lower prices for new vaccines, treatment

Published: Friday, Aug. 25 2006 11:08 a.m. MDT

Countries that join the data-sharing program will post their genetic sequence data in public databases, such as those at GenBank, run by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Bogner said. Companies that want to use the viruses will be able to obtain them from laboratories that do bird flu testing, such as those affiliated with the World Health Organization.

The idea of licensing biological products or organisms, as in H5N1's case, isn't new. For instance, GlaxoSmithKline Plc's Rotarix vaccine for diarrheal disease was developed from a virus Cincinnati Children's Hospital licensed to Glaxo's partner Avant Immunotherapeutics Inc. in exchange for royalties.

Increasingly, companies have paid poorer countries or their indigenous populations for biological materials isolated from plants used in traditional medicines or other sources.

New Approach

The new program's approach appears to offer benefits for all parties that might be involved, said Michael Gollin, founder of Public Interest Intellectual Property Advisors in Washington, which also gives assistance to developing countries on intellectual property rights.

"If the countries that have the viruses can get preferential treatment on access to vaccines and drugs, then there's incentive to participate," said Gollin, who said he has helped Kenyan tribes negotiate rights to a molecule used in a fabric softener, among other projects. "The leverage seems to be there."

Access to flu virus data has risen recently. Indonesia, the country hardest-hit by bird flu with 46 deaths, offered in the last two weeks to share information on viruses isolated in the country. On Aug. 22, the CDC made public data on 650 influenza genes and pledged to publish data about hundreds of viruses annually in the years to come.

Combimatrix, a Mukilteo, Washington-based maker of tests for influenza said today it has used the Indonesian information to develop a new version of its influenza testing system than detects a wider a variety of strains.

'Challenging'

Amit Kumar, the company's president and chief executive officer, said he was concerned that the need to obtain licenses might interfere with the quick exchange of data in some cases.

"It's going to be very challenging when a country in Southeast Asia says we've got some information about a diseases that has killed people and we're not going to give that out unless a company gives us a licensing fee or royalties," Kumar said yesterday in a telephone interview.

"It's not an ideal situation but it's going in the right direction to enable companies and academic researchers to utilize information," he said.

Developing countries are most interested in making sure they have the same protection from a worldwide pandemic that will be enjoyed by richer nations, said Bogner.

The new program's "initiative is really looking to protect against exploitation," he said. "I never thought there would be cash transactions involved."

China

International researchers have expressed concern about access to data from countries such as China, which recently revealed that it had a bird flu death in late 2003, two years before officially revealing any infections to the WHO.

Drugmakers Sanofi-Aventis SA, GlaxoSmithKline Plc, and Novartis AG that make vaccines against less lethal annual flu strains are also developing shots against strains of the H5N1 Avian influenza.

"Preparing for a potential avian influenza pandemic requires the efforts of all involved including industry, government, and even the citizenry of the afflicted nations," said Alison Marquiss, a spokeswoman for Novartis' vaccines unit, in a telephone interview. "To act quickly, it's important that the right structures are put in place for people to have access to information they need."

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