Last October, scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control went to Saudi Arabia to try to find the source of a new virus which at that point was known to have killed one Saudi man and left a man from Qatar gravely ill.
The CDC scientists are still waiting for a chance to test the samples they took during that investigation. Those specimens remain in Saudi Arabia, tied up in prolonged negotiations for a material transfer agreement the Saudi government has insisted the American agency sign.
The situation is frustrating the American scientists and impeding efforts to find the source of a virus which has now infected 55 people, killing 31 of them.
It's also ironic. Dr. Ziad Memish, the Saudi deputy health minister, has complained bitterly and publicly that the Dutch laboratory that first identified the MERS coronavirus applied for a patent on its genetic sequence and has been requiring labs that want virus samples to sign just such an agreement, known in research lingo as an MTA.
The scientist who heads the CDC division which is waiting for the Saudi samples said it is uncommon for the agency to be asked to sign an MTA to study samples taken during the course of an outbreak investigation. The team was in Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the kingdom's government.
Mark Pallansch, who is director of the CDC's division of viral diseases, said it is also unusual for it to take this long to negotiate and sign an MTA. He would not comment on why the negotiations have been so protracted.
"We are told at this point that we are close," Pallansch said.
"So I do have some degree of hope that we will indeed have this completed in the near future."
The fact that the American public health agency is still waiting, seven months later, for samples collected during an outbreak investigation came as a shock to an international health law expert who has been following the issues related to intellectual property claims on the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome virus, or MERS.
"The fact that negotiations are still going on about an MTA ... is very surprising," David Fidler, who teaches at Indiana University, said Friday when informed of the situation.
Fidler wrote an analysis on the coronavirus situation, entitled Who Owns MERS?, that was published Friday on the website of Foreign Affairs, the publication of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.
In an interview, he noted Memish had complained at the recent World Health Assembly — the annual meeting of the World Health Organization — that the need for laboratories to sign an MTA with Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam was slowing down scientific research on the MERS virus.
"Well here we have apparently a Saudi MTA with the CDC, the negotiation of which is causing delays in terms of getting samples and getting scientific research done," he said, adding it raises questions about whether "decisions that Saudi Arabia has made are themselves one of the key obstacles to getting research done on the coronavirus."