The cu­ri­ous case of Ebola patents

The US gov­ern­ment ap­pears to have a cure and (al­most) a vac­cine for the deadly dis­ease

Down to Earth - - COLUMN -

AS THE deadly Ebola virus spreads in West Africa tak­ing a lethal toll with its hem­or­rhagic fever, cu­ri­ous re­ports are emerg­ing of the patents the US holds on a cer­tain strain of the virus and the in­ter­est of its Depart­ment of De­fence in de­vel­op­ing a vac­cine with a Cana­dian biotech firm.The de­tails are sketchy but in­di­cate an over­whelm­ing Amer­i­can in­ter­est in Ebola.

The facts are thus: the US au­thor­i­ties ad­min­is­tered an experimental serum, pre­served in sub-zero tem­per­a­ture and flown un­der strict su­per­vi­sion to Africa, to two of its cit­i­zens who had con­tracted the virus in Liberia and were in crit­i­cal con­di­tion, be­fore fly­ing them home. Ebola, which takes its name from a river in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo, has a fa­tal­ity rate of 50-90 per cent. At the last count,890 of the 1,300 peo­ple who caught the virus had died.

Re­ports say that Kent Brantly, one of the two Amer­i­can mis­sion­ar­ies in­fected with Ebola, was given a sec­ond dose af­ter he was brought to a hos­pi­tal in At­lanta amidst high se­cu­rity and strin­gent med­i­cal pro­to­col. Brantly is said to be re­cov­er­ing, while the other, Nancy Write­bol, was on her way home as this col­umn was be­ing writ­ten.

What is the mirac­u­lous serum that is help­ing the Amer­i­can vic­tims of Ebola? From the snip­pets put out by med­i­cal ex­perts on US tele­vi­sion chan­nels it ap­pears the drug is a cock­tail of mon­o­clonal an­ti­bod­ies that was tried out for the first time on hu­mans.It is said to have worked well in tri­als on pri­mates but has yet to go through the manda­tory clin­i­cal tri­als be­fore it is cer­ti­fied for use on hu­man be­ings.The serum, called ZMapp, is man­u­fac­tured by Mapp Bio­phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in San Diego and De­fyrus Inc. of Toronto. Mapp is a tiny biotech lab with just 11 em­ploy­ees and has re­port­edly been work­ing on Ebola for a decade. It was part of a con­sor­tium that re­ceived fund­ing of $28 mil­lion from the gov­ern­ment’s Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health.

It is clear that the US gov­ern­ment has been keep­ing tabs on Ebola for a while now. It holds the patents on a strain of the Ebola virus known as Bundibu­gyo (EboBun) that was found in Uganda.It is al­though not clear whether it is the same strain that has cre­ated the cur­rent epi­demic.The patent, awarded in Oc­to­ber 2012 to five sci­en­tists led by Jonathan S Towner, is now de­posited with the US Cen­tre for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion.

In­ter­est­ingly, the “in­ven­tion” of the iso­lated hu­man Ebola (hEbola) virus has not been made avail­able to an in­ter­na­tional de­pos­i­tory au­thor­ity as required un­der the Bu­dapest Treaty that gov­erns the rules on global de­posits of micro­organ­isms for the pur­pose of grant­ing patents. How­ever, sam­ples of this ac­ces­sion (De­posit No.200706291) will be made avail­able to “ap­proved fa­cil­i­ties for 30 years from the date of de­posit, and for the life­time of the patent”.

While Mapp says it is “in the midst of an in­tense ef­fort to help ad­dress the Ebola out­break in West Africa”, Cana­dian firm Tek­mira Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals Cor­po­ra­tion is de­vel­op­ing a vac­cine for Ebola un­der a $140 mil­lion project funded by the US Depart­ment of De­fence. Tek­mira claims its ther­apy has proved 100 per cent effective in pro­tect­ing pri­mates from one of five strains of the virus and has fin­ished the first phase of clin­i­cal tri­als. The sec­ond phase will start once the US Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­views its pro­to­cols and gives a go-ahead.

So, look to the US for both the vac­cine and the cure for Ebola.

TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE

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