Before, We Had SARS; Now, We Have MERS : What Else Should We Be Worried About?

Elpidio V. Peria
1 June 2013

In a news posting dated 31 May 2013, the Washington Post reported on a World Health Organization (WHO) announcement of three (3) more deaths from a new virus called the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), bringing the total number of infected people to fifty (50) worldwide, with thirty of those patients dying from the disease.

According to the Washington Post, the virus is a coronavirus, the same type of virus responsible for the common cold as well as SARS, but less than a tenth of the people who fell ill in the SARS epidemic of 2002 and 2003 died. The new avian influenza virus spreading in China, known as H7N9, has resulted in death in a quarter of known cases, while the more well-known bird flu strain, H5N1, kills about half of those who are infected, all these according to The New York Times. It’s still too early to say whether the MERS virus is more dangerous than these other viruses, since many more people could have been infected without developing severe symptoms.

What Filipinos need to watch out for, especially those working in the Middle East, is the possibility of becoming infected with this virus and contaminating others in their households, or in their workplace, and if they go back home and visit the Philippines, spreading the virus beyond the Middle East, including the Philippines in the list of countries where these viruses are found, enabling it to spread also within Southeast Asia and also beyond its shores. This is a worrying scenario, though the World Health Organization has not yet raised an alarm globally so that countries should pay attention and take respective action within their national borders.

What has happened though, and this was reported by Third World Network as the subject of intense debate in the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva, Switzerland that just ended 28 May 2013, was the information that strains of these MERS virus that was sent without authorization by the Saudi government to a foreign research entity, in this case, Erasmus University Medical Center, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, was researched on and was patented by the university, enabling the university to claim ownership rights over these strains, to the chagrin of the Saudi government authorities, which criticised Erasmus’ intellectual property stance.

The Third World Network also said that aspects of the debate are reminiscent of the one that began in 2007 on access and benefit-sharing for H5N1 influenza virus. Those talks started with sharp divisions, but by 2011, resulted in adoption of the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) Framework, an agreement creating global access and benefit-sharing procedures for potentially pandemic influenza viruses.

What this global access and benefit-sharing framework could do is to enable countries from where these pathogens may have come from to get a share of the benefit from the way these pathogens are being made subjects for further profit-taking, perhaps to the detriment of addressing the public health concerns arising from these disease outbreaks. These benefits may come in the form of discounts or rebates in the prices of vaccines developed from these pathogens, some of which may come from the countries which may ask for these vaccines.

But, given that this framework agreement is not yet fully in place, these discounts and other benefits are just a theoretical construct, nothing will get in the way of pharmaceutical companies potentially profiting handsomely from these possible disease outbreaks, including those research institutes who got these pathogens.

This is what we should also be worried about.


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