GENEVA — World Health Organization officials said Thursday that their probe into the deadly new coronavirus that has now claimed 22 lives is being delayed because of a dispute over the ownership rights to a sample.
Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO's assistant director-general for health security, says the organization is "struggling with diagnostics" into the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS, because of the dispute.
Officials at the World Health Assembly in Geneva then publicly decried the public health impacts — and legal fallout — because a sample taken by Saudi microbiologist Ali Mohamed Zaki was mailed last year to virologist Ron Fouchier at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, where it was tested, sequenced and identified as a new virus.
Other researchers who want to obtain samples must first sign a material transfer agreement with the private medical center denoting ownership and user rights. That has delayed some of the testing, according to officials. However, there are a few other places, including facilities in Canada, Britain and Germany that have obtained samples, the officials said.
WHO's director-general, Dr. Margaret Chan, railed against the arrangement, which seemed to take some in the assembly hall by surprise. She pleaded with the hundreds of health officials at the annual World Health Assembly to "share your specimens with WHO collaborating centers, not in a bilateral manner."
"Please, I'm very strong on this point, and I want you to excuse me," she said. "Tell your scientists in your country, because you're the boss. You're the national authority. Why would your scientists send specimens out to other laboratories on a bilateral manner and allow other people to take intellectual property rights on a new disease?"
The World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of WHO, runs from May 20-28.
Indonesia has previously refused to share samples of the H5N1 bird flu virus, claiming that vaccines made from those samples would be too expensive for developing countries to afford. That dispute led to a protracted series of negotiations with WHO and others to ensure poor countries would have access to vaccines in a pandemic.
At the assembly, Fukuda said the new coronavirus has now claimed 22 lives worldwide out of 44 lab-confirmed cases, mostly in Saudi Arabia.
The latest fatal case involves a 63-year-old man in central Saudi Arabia with an underlying medical condition who died Monday, five days after being hospitalized with acute breathing problems. WHO officials say they do not believe it is related to the cluster of cases reported from the country's east.
"There is a huge amount that we do not understand about this virus or this situation," he said.
Four out of five of the 44 confirmed cases affected men, and the patients' average age is 56, said WHO officials, citing information that comes in part from Saudi health authorities. Patients have been between the ages of 24 and 94.
Saudi authorities have reported 10 deaths from 22 cases since an outbreak began at a health care facility in April in the country's east, WHO officials said.
Many health officials have been frustrated at the lack of detail coming out of Saudi Arabia about the virus and have complained there is not enough information about how cases are connected, their history and how they might have been exposed. Without that information, health officials will find it more difficult to track the virus' spread and how to prepare for a wider outbreak.
In a speech on Monday, Chan publicly praised China for its rapid sharing of information on the new bird flu, H7N9. She said nothing about Saudi Arabia and reminded countries of the importance of "fully transparent reporting to WHO."
Tunisia authorities have reported two confirmed cases, involving a brother and sister, and one probable case involving their 66-year-old father, who died in Tunisia on May 10, a week after returning from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said. Other cases of the deadly respiratory virus have also been seen in Jordan, Qatar, Britain, France and Germany.
"We do not know the full geographic spread of this virus," said Fukuda, who told the assembly that the incubation period seems to be anywhere from 2 1/2 days to 14 days.