Via Al Jazeera America: To prevent MERS pandemic, respect Saudi Arabia’s rights to the disease. Excerpt:
As the world grapples with the growing threat posed by Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), one critical issue has been largely ignored: the question of viral sovereignty. Simply put, who can lay claim to a virus? Who should own — and have the rights to profit from — a pathogen?
From the start, investigators’ efforts to thwart a MERS pandemic have unfolded alongside an unsavory battle to stake claim to the potential cash bonanza of investigating and finding treatment options. As a result, we face a growing risk that avarice will derail efforts to halt the spread of MERS, as scientists and governments divert energy from public health to legal wrangling.
These issues are gaining urgency with the approach of the hajj season, which begins June 28 with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Over the next three months, some 12 million Muslim pilgrims from around the world — including an estimated 11,000 from the United States — are expected to travel to the sacred city of Mecca in western Saudi Arabia, 3 million of whom will perform hajj, a duty for all able-bodied Muslims who can afford the journey.
This mass gathering greatly increases the potential for MERS to spread when the pilgrims return home. To date, 701 cases have been reported globally, with 249 lives lost to the virus since July 2012, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
To appreciate the risk, we need look no further than the 2005 avian influenza outbreak in Indonesia. In 2007 then–Minister of Health Siti Fadilah Supari moved to halt sharing of the virus at the peak of the epidemic. She did so because third parties (including the Western biotechnology industry) were using samples without Indonesia’s consent and in violation of WHO guidelines, with private companies selling patented vaccines created from the donated samples at prices that Indonesians simply could not afford.
Predictably, Indonesia’s actions sparked intense criticism, with some leading Western experts attacking the very concept of viral sovereignty. But this critique was — and is —shortsighted, failing to take into account the realities of a world divided as never before between haves and have-nots. Moreover, subsequent events proved the wisdom of Supari’s tactics, as WHO stepped in to broker an agreement providing for more equitable terms for sharing and access.
As the founder of the Supari Prize (a sack of hammers, awarded when deserved to the politician or bureaucrat whose policies are most flamboyantly unsanitary), I must beg to differ with this point of view. A public health threat by definition is everyone's business, and everyone's responsibility.