- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Researchers around the world are racing to patent the SARS virus and its genetic material.Several biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, the federal government and researchers in Canada and Hong Kong have filed patent applications related to severe acute respiratory syndrome in recent weeks, claiming ownership of everything from bits of genetic material to the virus itself.Nonprofit and government agencies said their applications are intended to keep the SARS work in the public domain, while private companies said patents will protect their research and development costs.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 international patent competition related to the virus that causes SARS, which 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 deft coordination of international efforts, said none of the patent applicants had contacted it regarding their intellectual-property claims.”What we care about is the international collaboration continues to function,” WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said. “Patents, they don’t really concern us.”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. Mr. Peiris referred queries on the patent application to the intellectual-property unit, Versitech Ltd., but no one answered the phone there Monday or yesterday.Mr. 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, he said.If others had not been doing so, the Hong Kong team probably would not have done so, either, Mr. Peiris said.The British Columbia Cancer Agency, which first sequenced the virus genome at its genome-sciences center, has also filed for a patent.While the patent could lead to royalties, the goal for now is to keep the information available to all needing it, the agency said.”Patents are in and of themselves not a good or bad thing,” the agency’s Dr. Samuel Abraham told a Toronto news conference. “The thing that makes a patent leave a nasty taste … is when they seem to cut people out from access they should have.”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, whose 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 antibiotechnology 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 U.S. Patent and Trademark 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, numbers 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, probably years, before the patent office begins to rule on the various SARS patent applications. It takes about two years for the average patent application to be granted.

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