updated 11/4/2003 7:09:55 PM ET 2003-11-05T00:09:55

Researchers around the world are racing to patent the SARS virus and its genetic material, rekindling criticism of laws that allow people to claim intellectual property rights on living things.

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Several biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, the U.S. government and researchers in Canada and Hong Kong have filed SARS-related patent applications in recent weeks, claiming ownership of everything from bits of genetic material to the virus itself.

Nonprofit and government agencies said their applications are intended to keep the SARS work in the public domain, while private companies said patents will protect their research and development, and possibly lead to drug royalties.

CDC claims ownership of virus
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, claims ownership of the virus and its entire genetic content. Rather than trying to profit if such a patent were awarded, the CDC says its application is to prevent others from monopolizing the field.

“The whole purpose of the patent is to prevent folks from controlling the technology,” said CDC spokesman Llelwyn Grant. “This is being done to give the industry and other researchers reasonable access to the samples.”

Regardless of motive, the race to patent the SARS virus has revived the debate about the ethics of a pivotal U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1980 that cleared the way for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to award patents for living things, most notably individual human genes.

“These are discoveries of nature and it’s baloney that we allow patents on living things,” said Jeremy Rifkin, a prominent anti-biotechnology author. “We didn’t allow chemists to patent the periodic table — there’s no patent on hydrogen and I don’t see why they can patent discoveries of nature.”

Entire humans can’t be patented, but genes or parts of genes can if they prove to be new, useful and isolated by somebody using sophisticated scientific techniques.

“It must have a real world utility and there has to be the hand of man involved,” said John Doll, director of biotechnology for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. “You can’t just turn over a rock and scrape something off the bottom of it and apply for a patent.”

‘Patents on life' skyrocketing
Even with those restrictions, the number of “patents on life” have exploded in recent years causing a backlog at the patent office.

More than 500,000 patents have been applied to control genes or gene sequences worldwide, according to the activist group GeneWatch UK. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office alone has issued approximately 20,000 patents on genes or gene-related molecules and 25,000 more applications are pending.

It will be at least months, and probably years, before the patent office begins to rule on the various applications. It takes about two years for the average patent application to be granted.

In Hong Kong, University of Hong Kong microbiologist Malik Peiris said Monday that the school’s intellectual property arm had filed for a patent on the SARS virus, which has infected more than 6,000 people worldwide and killed more than 460.

Peiris said that after his team discovered the virus, it sent samples to other scientists. When it became clear others were seeking patents, the Hong Kong team then sought one, Peiris said.

The British Columbia Cancer Agency, which first sequenced the virus genome at its Genome Sciences Centre, has also filed for a patent.

While the patent could lead to royalties in the future, the goal for now is to keep the information available to all needing it, the agency said.

“Patents are in and of themselves not a good or bad thing,” the agency’s Dr. Samuel Abraham told a Toronto news conference. “The thing that makes a patent leave a nasty taste ... is when they seem to cut people out from access they should have.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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