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Race to Patent SARS Virus Renews Debate

May 5, 2003 GMT

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Scientists have yet to find a treatment for the SARS virus, but already a race is on to patent it.

Several biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, the federal government and researchers in Canada and Hong Kong have filed SARS-related patents in recent weeks, claiming ownership of everything from bits of genetic material to the virus itself.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, claims ownership of the virus and its entire genetic content.

Rather than trying to profit if such a patent were awarded, the CDC says its application is to prevent others from monopolizing the field.

``The whole purpose of the patent is to prevent folks from controlling the technology,″ said CDC spokesman Llelwyn Grant. ``This is being done to give the industry and other researchers reasonable access to the samples.″

Still, the CDC faces patent competition from around the world related to the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome. SARS has infected more than 6,000 people worldwide, killing more than 460.

The World Health Organization, which has been lauded for its quick response and deftly coordinating an international response, said none of the patent applicants had contacted it regarding their intellectual property intentions.

``What we care about is the international collaboration continues to function,″ WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said. ``Patents, they don’t really concern us.″

In Hong Kong, University of Hong Kong microbiologist Malik Peiris said Monday that the school’s intellectual property arm had filed for a patent on the SARS virus. Peiris referred queries on the patent application to the intellectual property unit, Versitech Ltd., but no one was answering the phone there on Monday night.

Peiris said that after his team discovered the virus, it sent samples to other scientists but no patent was immediately sought. When it became clear others were seeking patents, the Hong Kong team then sought one, Peiris said.

If others had not been doing so, the Hong Kong team probably would not have done so, either, Peiris said.

The British Columbia Cancer Agency, which first sequenced the virus genome at its Genome Sciences Centre, has also filed for a patent.

Last week, biotechnology company Combimatrix filed patent applications claiming ownership of key components of two SARS genes thought to control reproduction of the virus once it invades people. Combimatrix, a subsidiary of Acacia Research Corp., hopes to create a drug that will jam the SARS reproduction system by targeting those two genes.

``If we didn’t have patent protection, we wouldn’t invest in the research,″ said Combimatrix president and chief executive Amit Kumar, whos company is based in Mukilteo, Wash.

Regardless of motive, the race to patent aspects of the SARS virus has rekindled criticism of laws that allow living things to be patented.

``These are discoveries of nature and it’s baloney that we allow patents on living things,″ said Jeremy Rifkin, a prominent anti-biotechnology author. ``We didn’t allow chemists to patent the periodic table _ there’s no patent on hydrogen and I don’t see why they can patent discoveries of nature.″

Since a pivotal U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1980, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has awarded patents for living things, most notably individual human genes.

Entire humans can’t be patented, but genes or parts of genes can if they prove to be new, useful and isolated by somebody using sophisticated scientific techniques.

``It must have a real world utility and there has to be the hand of man involved,″ said John Doll, director of biotechnology for the patent office. ``You can’t just turn over a rock and scrape something off the bottom of it and apply for a patent.″

Even with those restrictions, the number of ``patents on life″ have exploded in recent years causing a backlog at the patent office.

More than 500,000 patents have been applied for on genes or gene sequences worldwide, according to the activist group GeneWatch UK. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office alone has issued approximately 20,000 patents on genes or gene-related molecules and 25,000 more applications are pending.

It will be months, and probably years, before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office begins to rule on the various patent applications. It takes about two years for the average patent application to be granted.


AP correspondent Tom Cohen in Toronto contributed to this report.