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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 May, 2003, 15:05 GMT 16:05 UK
Fight over Sars virus genes
Coronavirus under electron microscope
The coronavirus: Who owns it?

Scientists and commercial firms are scrambling to patent the genetic code of the virus thought to be responsible for Sars.

The group which produced the first entire genetic sequence of the coronavirus confirmed this week that it is seeking a patent to ensure that everyone has free access to the code.

It fears that a commercial patent could slow down research into vaccines and treatments.

In recent years, many genes thought to relate to illness have been "patented" by individuals and firms.

This remains controversial - many scientists regard the unravelling of the function of genes as a "discovery" rather than an "invention", and therefore not patentable.

However, increasingly, scientists have lodged "defensive" gene patents to prevent commercial firms claiming intellectual property over them.

Swift sequence

The first genome of the Sars coronavirus strain was published within days of the World Health Organization sounding an alert over the illness.

So far, the virus has killed more than 400 people and infected thousands more.

The Sars gene code could be patented

The genome was published by the British Columbia Cancer Agency, based on samples taken from Sars patients in Toronto.

Samuel Abraham, its director for technology development, said that a provisional patent application had been made in the US.

He said: "What we're really trying to do here is make this something that will enable companies to have the freedom to operate."

He said that the agency would receive some royalties, which would be ploughed back into research.

Uncertainty

A Hong Kong firm is reportedly seeking a patent on the entire virus, and it will be months before a decision is made on whose intellectual property the virus strain and its genes are.

It is still not entirely certain whether the coronavirus identified by researchers is the sole cause of Sars.

A spokesman for the British Columbia Cancer Agency said: "We have made a defensive filing of a provisional patent application that we intend will protect accessibility to this scientific information rather than a monopoly approach by other organisations, corporations or individuals that could preclude access to scientists across the world including us."





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