Who Owns Scientific Data?
The coronavirus pandemic has rekindled a long-standing debate on whether viruses are a nation’s property, and if countries are obliged to share biological samples and scientific data that are key to developing life-saving treatments and vaccines. More than 6.5 million people are reported to have been infected globally, according to a Reuters tally.
China, where the novel coronavirus emerged late last year, shared the viral genetic sequence data (GSD) with the World Health Organization (WHO) in early January. That enabled laboratories around the world to start developing test kits, medications and vaccines.
Since then, however, a war of words has erupted around who gets access to vaccines and treatments first, with outrage over reports the U.S. administration tried to gain access to a potential vaccine being developed by a German firm.
“It is morally wrong to think that someone has a stronger claim to a vaccine because they happen to live in a rich country,” said Mark Eccleston-Turner, co-author of a recent paper on the issue of viral sovereignty.
The international legal system encourages countries to look at viruses as their “sovereign resources that can be bargained and bartered away in exchange for future health goods such as vaccines,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We need to move away from this model to one where viruses, and the health goods which are developed are seen as public goods, which everyone in the world has equal claim and access to,” said Eccleston-Turner, a lecturer at Britain’s Keele University.