The global safety net to create vaccines against pandemic influenza is
facing an uncertain future because of patent claims by companies seeking
to profit from a pandemic disaster. For 50 years, the World Health
Organization's Global Influenza Surveillance Network (WHO GISN) has
collected flu viruses and produced vaccine seed strains; but confidence
in the system has been undermined because the viruses it collects are
being turned into proprietary and expensive products that developing
countries cannot access or afford.

Governments are meeting this week in Singapore to try and hammer out a
deal to fix the WHO GISN. A key part of that deal must be stopping
biopiracy by companies such as MedImmune, which has filed international
patent applications on genes from at least 29 different bird flu (H5N1)
and other influenza viruses. MedImmune (recently bought by AstraZeneca)
is trying to control the flu strains - putting profits before public
health and safety.

The patent claims have shattered confidence in the WHO GISN system.
Developing countries are asked to provide viruses to the WHO network;
but see proprietary claims and products that are way too expensive for
them to use in return. Particularly galling is the fact that a WHO
Collaborating Center for influenza research, St. Jude's Children's
Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, has itself filed for patent on a
Vietnamese bird flu virus gene. Thus, not only are companies and
institutions that obtain viruses from the WHO Collaborating Centers
filing for patents; but the wave of proprietary claims extends even to
laboratories that are part of the WHO GISN.

Developing countries raised these issues at the last World Health
Assembly meeting in Geneva in May of this year. Some have slowed their
sharing of new bird flu viruses with the WHO GISN, encouraging talks to
rectify the system's problems.

In fact, developing country sovereignty over the viruses can be used to
stop the wave of proprietary claims exerted on flu viruses, sequences,
and vaccines and to restructure the WHO GISN so that it is patent-free
and so developing countries have more equitable access to vaccine
technologies and treatments for bird flu.

In fact, bird flu vaccines are already being made using patented
technology including "reverse genetics", a technique that is used to
create vaccine seed viruses. The WHO GISN and developed countries are
defending the exclusive rights of the patent owners of reverse genetics
(meaning that users of WHO-produced vaccine seed viruses may need to pay
royalties). But those same countries, especially the US and Japan,
refuse to recognize that developing countries have a say over how the
viruses they provide are used (for example, through a Material Transfer
Agreement), and they refuse to prevent the viruses and their sequences
from being patented.

The US is one country whose position will be closely watched. It is
expected to strongly defend corporate patents. The US government has
conflicting interests in the WHO GISN. On the one hand, the US WHO
Collaborating Center at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta
serves, along with laboratories in other countries, important public
health functions. On the other hand, the US Department of Health is
funding corporate and academic influenza research that US law (the
Bayh-Dole Act) and policy effectively require to be patented.

The US government needs to find a way to continue participating in the
WHO GISN but prevent its companies and other labs from rushing to file
patent applications on viruses and their parts. Developed countries also
need to put the means to produce pandemic vaccines into hands of
developing countries if they are seriously interested in increasing
global production of vaccines to combat bird flu.

According to data from the World Intellectual Property Organization
(WIPO) PatentScope database, a dramatic surge in patent claims related
to bird flu has occurred in the past 18 months. In 2004 there were no
claims on H5N1-specific vaccines, sequences, diagnostics, and related
items. However in 2006, 14 such patent applications were filed while in
the first half of 2007, already 20 such applications have been filed.
Half of these patent claims originate from the United States, while most
of the rest are from Europe.

Pandemic preparedness is a multifaceted and serious global problem. Many
countries, both developed and developing, currently cannot meet the
needs of their own citizens. Among other reasons, global vaccine
production capacity falls far short of what is needed, in large part
because of over reliance on the private sector to solve public health

Measures to improve the system and to improve global pandemic
preparedness should include restructuring the WHO GISN to recognize the
sovereign rights of the country contributing the virus and to prohibit
patents on the viruses contributed, their parts, and vaccines created
with them. The restructured GISN should also ensure fair and equitable
sharing of benefits with developing countries.

A limited number of governments (24) have been invited by the WHO to the
meeting in Singapore from 31 July through 4 August to discuss terms and
conditions for sharing influenza viruses. This will be followed by an
intergovernmental meeting scheduled for November. If those meetings are
successful, then after discussions at a January 2008 meeting of the WHO
Executive Board, the restructuring of the WHO GISN can be approved by
the 61st World Health Assembly in May 2008.

A report providing more information about patent claims on H5N1 viruses,
Some Intellectual Property Issues Related to H5N1 Influenza Viruses,
Research and Vaccines is available at:


Sangeeta Shashikant
Third World Network, Malaysia
In Singapore through 5 August:
Mobile: (65) 96149738

Edward Hammond,
The Sunshine Project, Austin, TX US
In Singapore through 5 August:
Hotel Tel: (65) 6338 8558