by: Elizabeth Kolar
Even though the United States has been declared “Ebola-free”, the effort to contain and eradicate Ebola hemorrhagic fever from the affected African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and now Mali is ongoing. As the fight has evolved over the past year, misconceptions and conspiracies have made their way to the general public. This time of misinformation can hurt scientific and medical advances necessary to combat the disease..
Early in the Fall of this year, while most in the United States were becoming more aware of the outbreak occurring in West Africa, and with several cases were starting to pop up here within our borders, some started spreading the conspiracies and misinformation regarding a patent issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to the Center for Disease Control. There is in fact a U.S. patent that was published in 2010 (Patent No. CA2741523A1) for a particular strain of Ebola virus isolated in 2007 from Bundibugyo, Uganda. In this patent, it is known as Bundibugyo ebolavirus (EboBun), and is a very close relative to the species of Ebola virus, known as Ebola Zaire, that is causing the current outbreak.
Suddenly, there were stories on social media about how the government is using the virus as a form of population control. There were even news stories of well-respected people in many communities speaking out about how the Ebola virus was man made and the patent was going to be used to control who had access and who could make vaccines. Basically, many thought it to be a money making scheme by the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Many were jumping on the actual language of the patent, where it states that the virus is an “invention”, and this demonstrated once and for all that the government had invented the deadly virus.
Biological patents have been controversial ever since the first one in the U.S. was issued in 1906 for a purified form of adrenaline. This was challenged, but upheld, arguing that the purified form of a natural substance was more useful than the original. Since then, researchers and companies have been patenting DNA sequences, genetically modified organisms, as well as entire genomes. It is thought that more than 2,000 patents for biological materials have been awarded in the U.S.. When there is a patent for a particular “invention” or discovery, one might ask, “At what cost to valuable research?” A patent to many implies that money must be exchanged when a material is used, or when a vaccine or treatment is discovered, one must pay the original inventor. If not, then this could be an infringement of the patent and could be taken to court.
As of June 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that companies or groups of individuals cannot patent isolated genetic material, which includes viruses, in the famous Association For Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics case. Myriad Genetics held patents obtained in the 1990s for the two genes shown to be crucial in the development of hereditary breast cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2. The company believes that because the genes they patented have been isolated and modified so that they are useful in a laboratory setting, they are open to being patented. They are, as Myriad states, human inventions; very different from the naturally occurring genes found in the human genome. Since the patenting of the genes, Myriad has held the monopoly for research on detection of hereditary breast and ovarian cancers.
The Department of Justice has stated that the changes made on which Myriad based their patent was insignificant because what is important to researchers and doctors is the actual information in the gene, not the composition of the gene. Patients and advocates also complained that because of the patents Myriad holds, research is hindered and genetic testing is expensive and not as readily available.
While the system is not perfect due to large companies seeking compensation for services that they have developed and patented, the fact that there are biological patents at all is not a bad thing as a whole. The Myriad Genetics Supreme Court case is an example of why government agencies such as the CDC and the DHHS seek patents. It is not uncommon for the CDC to patent living organisms so that necessary research may continue without restrictions by companies. A patent obtained by the government allows scientists to work on biological organisms without a fee and allows for open access to these materials. This is why there is a biological patent on the Ebola virus species that was found in Uganda in 2007; so that when there is a crisis such as the one in which we find ourselves currently, many researchers have access to what is currently known about the virus, and can work together to find a cure. We are also in an exciting time in biotechnology, when scientists can create new DNA sequences and synthetic organisms in the lab. This research can help us understand the creation of life and other biological processes, and this should be protected.
Trying to educate the general public about things such as the current research towards eradicating diseases or about the patents issued to protect the intellectual property of researchers, universities, and government agencies is a challenging, but important task. In the age of social media where ideas are exchanged with ease, misinformation is rampant. Unfortunately, this can hinder scientific progress at times. Since people are unsure of where government money or their own donations go, it could lead to funding cuts from both the government and from valuable non-profit organizations. In order to move forward in our fight against disease, the public should be included in important discoveries and the process that is required to make these advances.