The coronavirus pandemic has rekindled a long-standing debate on whether viruses are a country’s property, and if countries are obliged to share biological samples and scientific data that are key to developing life-saving treatments and vaccines.
More than 6.5 million people are reported to have been infected globally, according to a Reuters tally.
China, where the novel coronavirus emerged late last year, shared the viral genetic sequence data (GSD) with the World Health Organization (WHO) in early January.
That enabled laboratories around the world to start developing test kits, medications and vaccines.
Since then, however, a war of words has erupted around who gets access to vaccines and treatments first, with outrage over reports the U.S. administration tried to gain access to a potential vaccine being developed by a German firm.
“It is morally wrong to think that someone has a stronger claim to a vaccine because they happen to live in a rich country,” said Mark Eccleston-Turner, co-author of a recent paper on the issue of viral sovereignty.
The international legal system encourages countries to look at viruses as their “sovereign resources that can be bargained and bartered away in exchange for future health goods such as vaccines,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We need to move away from this model to one where viruses, and the health goods which are developed are seen as public goods, which everyone in the world has equal claim and access to,” said Mr. Eccleston-Turner, a lecturer at Britain’s Keele University.
Countries have fought before over sharing virus samples and data, and access to vaccines, notably during the AIDS crisis and the Ebola outbreak.
In 2007, Indonesia stopped sharing virus samples of the H5N1 avian flu virus, on concerns that wealthy countries were developing vaccines based on those strains, which they would then sell at high prices.
Indonesia resumed sharing of virus samples after the WHO vowed to help boost vaccine production in poorer countries, but the faceoff reiterated the persistent challenge of sharing scientific data and biological samples.
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) and its Nagoya Protocol (2012) on access and benefit sharing both recognize countries’ sovereignty over genetic resources, with no legal obligation to share, even in a health emergency.
“The lack of a clear legal obligation to share represents a blind spot in international law and governance, impeding pandemic response and scientific progress,” Mr. Eccleston-Turner wrote in the Science journal paper published in May.
But “limiting access to the resources on the basis of state sovereignty may be one of the few points of leverage available to developing countries hoping to negotiate fair and equitable access to diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines,” he said.
The question of who owns data – and not just scientific data – has come under scrutiny during the coronavirus crisis, as countries rolled out technologies to track the virus, but which digital rights experts say invade privacy and increase surveillance.
But the very idea of data sovereignty “is illusory,” said Martin Tisné, managing director of philanthropic organization Luminate, that works on digital rights issues.
“COVID-19 is a public harm; we will fight it by building a public good. The data, models and software used to address the COVID-19 pandemic should be as open as possible,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, and exposed the vulnerability of disadvantaged populations including the urban poor, Indigenous people and migrant workers, according to human rights groups.
The gap between wealthy and poor countries is evidenced in everything from quarantine facilities to relief measures, with fears that “immunity passports” that can clear people to travel or work, would further entrench inequalities.
This is why the WHO must ensure “mandatory worldwide sharing” of COVID-19 related knowledge and data “with need prioritized above the ability to pay,” more than 150 academics, former heads of state and UN officials said in an open letter last month.
“The ask for free access to vaccines, data and treatments is based on the experience of health and development experts that denial of access is often a serious problem in handling a health crisis,” said Purnima Mane, a signatory to the letter.
“It is entirely relevant in a global pandemic where poorer countries and less well-off populations in countries are often denied the benefits of development and progress,” said Ms. Mane, a former head of health care non-profit Pathfinder International.
Luminate funds a project of the Britain-based Open Data Institute (ODI) to make all data related to the coronavirus open, so it can be used “quickly and without restrictions by those who need it most, and to the benefit of everyone.”
The WHO has launched the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, supported by other international institutions and about 30 countries, and aimed at making vaccines, tests, treatments and other health technologies accessible to all.
But while the coronavirus crisis has seen many examples of rapid sharing, it has also highlighted the reality that “countries may not readily relinquish their sovereignty over pathogenic genetic resources and associated GSD,” Mr. Eccleston-Turner said.
What’s needed is a legal framework that makes these resources available for research and development, he said.
“It is understandable that countries will want to use what leverage they have to gain equitable access to necessary and limited resources,” said Jeni Tennison, vice-president of ODI.
But withholding data “seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
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