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2020-02-11 02:03:54

A virology institute under the Chinese Academy of Sciences is facing criticism after revealing that it applied for a patent on the use of a U.S.-developed drug to treat the novel coronavirus.

Remdesivir, developed by California-based pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, has not been approved anywhere in the world, though it has shown promising results in some laboratory studies. As its inventor, Gilead holds the patent for remdesivir’s chemical formula — though under general patent rules, other companies can still apply for patents on different uses of the drug, as long as those uses are novel and not obvious.

Patents and the Problem of Optics

On Chinese social media, some people view the virology institute’s move as a callous cash grab after it failed to warn and protect the people of Wuhan.

“(The institute) is slow at figuring out whether the virus is contagious but pretty fast at filing patent applications,” wrote one user on microblogging platform Weibo. “The Wuhan Institute of Virology can take care of everything except sounding the alarm and treating disease,” wrote another.

The virology institute filed the remdesivir usage patent on Jan. 21 — several days before the drug was used to relieve symptoms in a coronavirus patient in the U.S., and two weeks before clinical trials began in Wuhan on Feb. 3. In the absence of clear solutions, Chinese health authorities and medical workers have been eyeing powerful antiviral drugs, including ones used to fight HIV, in hopes that they might also be effective against the novel coronavirus.

Researchers in the Biosafety Level 4 laboratory at Wuhan Institute of Virology, Hubei province, Feb. 23, 2017. Johannes Eisele/VCG

Researchers in the Biosafety Level 4 laboratory at Wuhan Institute of Virology, Hubei province, Feb. 23, 2017. Johannes Eisele/VCG

“They want a placeholder,” Jerry Xia, a lawyer specializing in patent law at Anjie Law Firm in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone. “Patent filings are always first come, first served — so it’s quite understandable (that the institute did this). The patent could become the institute’s leverage in future negotiations.”

If the usage patent application is approved, Gilead may not be able to sell its own drug for the purpose of treating the novel coronavirus without the institute’s consent, Xia said — though it’s also possible that the institute may not be allowed to manufacture the drug in China without Gilead’s license.

“In this situation, the two parties would probably have to come to some kind of agreement,” he said.

The patent could become the institute’s leverage in future negotiations.

Remdesivir has not been proved safe or effective for treating the novel coronavirus, Gilead said in a statement to Sixth Tone. “We believe any discussion of compulsory or other types of licensing is premature,” the company said. “We have not had any discussions with authorities about supply, manufacturing costs, or remuneration for Gilead.”

In 2016, the California company applied for — but has yet to be granted — a patent in China on using remdesivir to treat coronaviruses. However, this does not necessarily cover the full umbrella, as subsequent usage patents against specific coronaviruses such as SARS, MERS, or 2019-nCoV could still be issued to entities like the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

According to Xia, it is unclear whether the institute’s application will be approved because the details have not been made public. “They would need to provide sufficient data to prove that the drug is effective in treating the novel coronavirus,” he said. “A patent normally takes several years to be approved, unless a special green channel is used. By that time, the epidemic would likely be over.”

With High Biosafety Levels Come High Expectations

The reputation of the Wuhan Institute of Virology has taken a few hits since news of the outbreak first started circulating in early January. As the number of confirmed cases began to rise each day, resentment simmered on Chinese social media, with many criticizing the institute for not responding appropriately and promptly to the outbreak.

“I don’t think (the institute) did its due diligence,” said Huang Yanzhong, a global health expert specializing in China at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

A photo of Wang Yanyi, director-general of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. From @中华诗文学习 on Weibo

A photo of Wang Yanyi, director-general of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. From @中华诗文学习 on Weibo

The Wuhan Institute of Virology houses China’s only Biosafety Level 4 lab — a facility for studying the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases, such as the Ebola and Marburg viruses.

After construction on the BSL-4 lab was completed in 2015, Li Bin, the head of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said the new facility “would provide important technological support for preventing and controlling emerging infectious diseases, public health emergency responses, and new drug development.”

I don’t think (the institute) did its due diligence.

To Huang, however, the virology institute’s handling of the current crisis has been a letdown.

“The lab specializes in virus research and is located at the epicenter — yet it seems to me that the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, the Chinese CDC, and the Academy of Military Medical Sciences did most of the work in sequencing the coronavirus’ genome,” Huang told Sixth Tone.

In a statement released Jan. 29, the Wuhan Institute of Virology said it had sequenced the entire genome of the novel coronavirus on Jan. 2. But the Chinese public was not informed of the successful sequencing until Jan. 10, when a research group led by scientists from the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center and Fudan University published their data. So far, the virology institute has provided no evidence to support its claim of genome-sequencing primacy.

Minimum Qualification: A Good Marriage

In addition to criticism of the virology institute itself, people have also expressed doubts about the competency of its leader.

Several articles widely circulated on social app WeChat have accused Wang Yanyi, the institute’s director-general, of having a weak academic background and ascending to her post through nepotism at a relatively young age. Some suspect Wang was only picked to lead the institute because of her husband, who is an academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the virology institute’s former director.

According to the institute’s website, Wang has published 28 papers in top academic journals while her subordinate, the deputy director, has published over 60.

“What we are feeling now — disoriented and torn apart — is all because of the nepotism that put Wang where she is now,” one of the WeChat articles said.

Cherry-Picked Details Do Not a Conspiracy Prove

Public disillusionment with the virology institute has also given way to conspiracy theories.

Following a report from a fringe media site in the U.S., stories about whether the coronavirus was engineered and leaked by Shi Zhengli, a coronavirus specialist at the institute, have gained traction on Chinese social media. Some netizens point to a 2015 study in which Shi and her team described how they had isolated a coronavirus found in bats and made it infectious to humans by manipulating a key protein.

A researcher from the Wuhan Institute of Virology swabs a bat at Taiyi Cave in Xianning, Hubei province, May 3, 2018. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone

A researcher from the Wuhan Institute of Virology swabs a bat at Taiyi Cave in Xianning, Hubei province, May 3, 2018. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone

Scientists have slammed that theory as bunkum. “The idea borders on the absurd,” John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, Berkeley told Sixth Tone. “These are conspiracy theories. They are rooted in mischief and paranoia.”

In an interview last week, Shi told Chinese media outlet Caixin that she had no intention of discussing technical subjects with non-experts, as doing so would be a waste of time. “All I can tell you is that our experiments follow the relevant laws and regulations,” she said.

When Sixth Tone contacted the Wuhan Institute of Virology for comment, a staff member said no one was allowed to speak to the public or press without approval from higher authorities.

Scientists here don’t have autonomy because they’re micromanaged by officials.

According to Li Jing, a sociologist at Zhejiang University in eastern China, rumors such as those surrounding the virology institute are often based on preconceived ideas — that scientists exist to do the bidding of the Communist Party, for example.

If scientists are being micromanaged by officials, they can’t work autonomously, Li told Sixth Tone. And if they’re trying to both serve the higher authorities and further their own careers, that hardly leaves room to consider the public interest, she added.

“We’ve seen scientists make up data to get their papers published, or write papers that don’t help us understand the truth or advance humankind,” Li said. “That’s why these rumors challenging their authority have become so pervasive.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: From the website of British medical journal The Lancet)