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A bioprocessing engineer shows a shaker flask where cells in growth medium are cultured in a laboratory at Dutch biotech company uniQurein in Amsterdam Dec. 13, 2012. The cells are being used as tiny factories to produce the gene therapy drug Glybera.


Anew SARS-like affliction is testing the plague of patent trolls. The MERS coronavirus first found in Saudi Arabia already has killed more than two dozen people and the World Health Organization warns it is an emerging threat globally. The case also stretches intellectual property law far beyond smartphones, where most of the recent high-profile battles have taken place. When the stakes are this high, greed often plays a lesser role.

Last year, a Saudi doctor sent a sample of the unusual virus to the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. Erasmus identified, purified and sequenced it – and then filed for a patent to receive royalties on any diagnostics or vaccine based off the viral sequence it subsequently put into the public domain. A Saudi health official has accused Erasmus of impeding the discovery of treatments by not sharing. The Dutch centre says it gives the virus to any researcher who asks, with a few standard provisos including that commercial applications not be developed without its consent.

Past epidemics have prompted similar squabbling. Labs in developed economies typically want recompense for their work. Emerging nations worry drug makers will create tests and vaccines the average citizen can't afford. In 2006, Indonesia refused to share flu samples unless it was given a share of the spoils.

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The financial sums involved mean public health scares can't be completely immune to intellectual property confrontations. Gilead Sciences has grown into an $85-billion (U.S.) company, with higher operating margins than Apple, primarily by fighting HIV and hepatitis. But Gilead also has largely sidestepped the seemingly endless patent battles Apple is fighting by striking some novel arrangements. For example, a collective deal with peers and non-profit patent holders allows generic manufacturers to make HIV treatments available more cheaply in poorer countries.

The prospect of death tends to focus minds and stifle overly selfish behaviour. Indonesia eventually relented and countries agreed to share samples in exchange for concessions from pharmaceutical companies. China quickly published online the sequence of this year's bird flu. Erasmus has a history of widely disseminating information about viruses it discovers. If other industries could take a similarly broad view on the common good, it might help ease the escalating patent wars.

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