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Is Big Pharma Standing in the Way of Curing the New SARS?

An electron microscope image of a coronavirus

An electron microscope image of a coronavirus // British Health Protection Agency/AP

Middle East Respiratory Symptom coronavirus (MERS-CoV), better known as the new SARS cousin that is efficiently killing people in Saudi Arabia, has been described by the World Health Organization as "a threat to the entire world." Like most deadly diseases — and there seem to be a lot going around these days — finding a cure won't be easy. But there may be one majorly complex — and already controversial — pharmacological debate standing in the way of pressing life-saving treatments: A couple Dutch scientists have already patented part of the disease, and they're not the only ones looking to profit on it.

CNN reports that, to date, there have been 49 known infections of MERS-CoV (formerly known just as NCoV), and 27 have resulted in death — that's 55 percent — with infections reported in five new people in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, three of whom have already died. This virus knows how to kill, which it does by way of pneumonia and eventual kidney failure. "The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself. The novel coronavirus is a threat to the entire world," WHO Director General Margaret Chan said at an intentional meeting this week. 

As with bird flu, SARS, ebola, AIDS, and all the other new infectious nightmares before it, MERS-CoV needs a cure. Which seems possible — with one very big hitch. As The Verge's Carl Franzen notes, a group of scientists at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands filed a patent for a sequence in the disease late last year patented a sequence in the disease, a patent that was filed late last year, when the novel coronavirus was still very novel. Now, as Bloomberg's Simeon Bennett reported, critics insist the patent could slow a quick fix, cut off the WHO's international coalition, and bring Big Pharma into the mix too fast. If that sounds like a bad sequel to Contagion or The Constant Gardener, remember that this is very real in Saudia Arabia, where health officials arespeaking out against the patent process, as an out-of-country business operation in cahoots with "vaccine companies and antiviral drug companies" that "should not happen." To that, "the Dutch team contends a patent will spur investment from pharmaceutical companies into drugs and vaccines," Franzen reports. As we know, investment and and the pharmaceutical companies take time and money, neither of which the infected in Saudi Arabia have much time for right now.

Read more at The Atlantic Wire

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