I've been away from my computer much of the day, or I'd have linked by now to a very useful post by Dr. Judy Stone on her Scientific American blog Molecules to Medicine: Muddled about MERS? Here’s A Quick Guide. Click through for the extensive but concise post plus many links. Excerpt:
As with China and SARS early on, one of the current problems is that the Saudi government has been less than forthcoming about the number of MERS cases. A new report says that the government directed physicians to misreport the cause of death of patients. This is worrisome for many reasons—and it cannot be emphasized enough that what stopped SARS was candor and cooperation—scientists sharing specimens and governments being more transparent than usual.
Obviously, governments are loath to admit that they have problems—especially ones that can have a serious economic impact. David L. Heymann, former executive director of communicable diseases at the World Health Organization, recalls that an epidemic of cholera in the 1990s cost Peru more than $770 million; later, India lost more than $1 billion due to a plague outbreak.
There has also been a longstanding reluctance to share samples because of patent considerations. For example, in 2007, Indonesia, the country most affected by H5N1, decided to stop sending viral isolates to WHO (World Health Organization), seriously hampering efforts to study the newly emerging virus. Indonesia argued that the samples they freely provided would be exploited by wealthy countries to develop a vaccine that would be too costly for developing countries. Ultimately, they did agree to a proposal with WHO that would allow sharing the viruses and the profits.
There has been similar bickering over the MERS virus. A virus sample was sent for identification from a virologist, Ali Mohamed Zaki, to Albert Osterhaus and Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. The virologist who discovered the virus, was promptly fired for sending the sample to try to help diagnose a patient’s illness, and for posting his concerns about the emergence of a new viral pathogen on an infectious disease alert bulletin board, ProMed—a compelling reading. That listing on ProMed alerted London physicians to the possible coronavirus diagnosis in a Qatari man they were caring for—and prompted an immediate global alert from the WHO.
In the meantime, Erasmus promptly patented the “use of the sequence and host receptor data” for MERS and insisted on material transfer agreements, or MTAs, claiming they had an “ethical obligation” to do so, to speed development of therapies. While the Saudis were understandably miffed, Osterhaus and Erasmus have said that the viral samples were being made freely available for public health research.
But the Saudis are seriously hampering study of MERS, particularly now by hiding cases and not sharing epidemiologic information that might lead to understanding of how MERS is being transmitted, and help stopping this growing global pandemic. This is unconscionable.