Saudi Arabia has faced the brunt of the MERS crisis so far, recording 39 out of the 46 deaths reported from a total of 91 cases worldwide. “We haven’t been able to go very far with diagnostics and finding a vaccine for the virus as of today. The main reason is that the virus was patented by a foreign laboratory and is not allowed to be used for investigations by other scientists,” H E Abdulaziz bin Sulaiman al Turki, Saudi Ambassador to Oman, told Muscat Daily.
H E Turki said that the matter was raised by Saudi Deputy Health Minister Ziad Memish at the annual meeting of health ministers at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva earlier this year.
According to the Ambassador, the Deputy Health Minister told WHO that after the new virus was discovered in September 2012 in Saudi Arabia, a researcher took a sample out of the kingdom without permission and gave it to the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands.
WHO was also informed that Saudi Arabia learnt about the discovery of the new virus only after three months from ProMED, a US-based Internet-based reporting system. The Rotterdam-based Erasmus lab then patented the process for synthesising the virus – in effect, anyone who wants to use their method to study the virus would have to pay the lab.
Saudi authorities are now appealing to international organisations and institutions to address the negative impact of the race among scientists and researchers to patent an intellectual property ‘so that they could become the first to write about the new discoveries in scientific journals’.
“Intellectual property rights and patents should not stand in the way of public interest, especially when it concerns the health of a large number of people,” said H E Turki.
WHO chief Margaret Chan has reportedly vowed to look into the matter and assured Saudi Arabia that no intellectual property should be allowed to stand in the way of protecting its people from the virus.
H E Turki, meanwhile, assured pilgrims in Oman that Saudi Arabia will deploy more paramedics and enhance the infection surveillance capacity of its hospitals around the holy places in Mecca, Medina and Jeddah to monitor and prevent the spread of MERS.
With the Hajj coming up in October, H E Turki said, “I would like to reassure our brothers and sisters in the Sultanate of Oman and all residents here that there are no fears of performing Umrah during the holy month of Ramadan and Hajj due to a few cases of MERS infection in the kingdom.”
He added that MERS has so far had no effect on the number of visitors travelling to the kingdom from Oman.
“In the absence of any treatment or vaccine as of now, the most important steps are surveillance and diagnosis of those infected. The surveillance plan includes monitoring of access routes through land, sea and air and identifying infected patients through known symptoms; and then undertake a proper medical diagnosis. Hospitals and healthcare workers have been trained to deal with increased number of visitors during Hajj,” he added.
Saudi Arabia has also increased the capacity of medical laboratories across the kingdom to monitor the virus. Besides, a laboratory in Jeddah has been augmented with state-of-the-art equipment to carry out special tests to detect the new virus. “Jeddah was selected owing to its proximity to the two Holy Mosques (Mecca and Medina),” said H E Turki.
The Ambassador, however, reiterated the advisory issued recently by the Saudi Ministry of Health that urged the elderly and chronically ill, as well as children and pregnant women, to avoid performing Umrah and Hajj this year.
“It has been observed that the virus affects the elderly or those suffering from chronic diseases the most. So, it is advisable for patients suffering from heart, kidney or respiratory illnesses as well as those having diabetes, tumours or HIV infections besides pregnant women and children to postpone their Umrah and Hajj plans,” H E Turki said.
DOS AND DON’TS
A summary of the advisory issued by the Saudi Ministry of Health for all Umrah and Hajj pilgrims to curb the spread of MERS:
Wash hands with soap and water or disinfectant, especially after coughing and sneezing
Use disposable tissues when coughing or sneezing and dispose it properly in a waste basket
Try as much as possible to avoid hand contact with the eyes, nose and mouth
Avoid direct contact with those having symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, expectoration, vomiting, and diarrhoea. Do not share their personal gadgets
Wear masks, especially when in crowded places