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Mail on Sunday Sensationalises on Chinese Remdesivir Patent

From the Mail on Sunday:

China tried to patent potential coronavirus drug Remsvidir the DAY AFTER Beijing confirmed virus was transmissable between humans

China filed a patent for a drug seen as one of the best potential weapons against coronavirus the day after it confirmed human transmission of the disease.

The revelation that it moved so fast fuels concerns about a cover-up of the pandemic when it erupted in Wuhan last year, and suggests that China’s understanding of the virus was far advanced from the impression given by its public stance.

…The application was made by Wuhan Institute of Virology, the top-secret bio-laboratory at the centre of concerns about a possible leak of the disease from its research on bats, and the country’s Military Medicine Institute.

The move was described as ‘provocative’ by one website specialising in clinical research.

Gilead, the California-based developer of the drug, says it filed its own global applications for Remdesivir’s use against coronavirus four years ago.

Articles suggestive of intrigue and cover-up at the Wuhan Institute of Virology are now a weekly staple of the Mail on Sunday – the pieces are mostly by the paper’s political editor, Glen Owen, rather than a science or health hack, and as such it is reasonable to suppose that his material derives from private political briefings. I looked at previous examples here and here, and found them to be sensationalist and overly reliant on dubiously sourced second-hand American reports. This latest effort comes with what appears to be an exclusive quote provided by Tom Tugendhat MP, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and one wonders to what extent Tugendhat’s staffers may have assisted in providing Owen with the overall story.

Once again, there is less here than meets the eye. In particular, the “revelation” is nearly three months old; the headline “China lab seeks patent on use of Gilead’s coronavirus treatment” appeared above a Reuters story on 5 February, based on a statement from the supposedly “top-secret” research facility:

The Wuhan Institute of Virology of the China Academy of Sciences, based in the city where the outbreak is believed to have originated, said in a statement on Tuesday [4 February] it applied to patent the use of Remdesivir, an antiviral drug developed by Gilead (GILD.O), to treat the virus.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week reported a coronavirus patient in the United States was found to show an improvement after taking Remdesivir, which is also used to treat infectious diseases such as Ebola.

…The Wuhan-based laboratory said in its statement that the patent application was filed on Jan. 21.

This article appeared a day after the publication of a short letter by researchers from Wuhan in Cell Research (a subdivision of Nature) titled “Remdesivir and chloroquine effectively inhibit the recently emerged novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in vitro”. The letter had been received by the journal on 25 January.

Some weeks later, in mid-March, the story was picked up by TrialSiteNews, a website specialising in medical trials. According to the article:

On January 21, it was reported that China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences filed a patent for commercial use of remdesivir in China. Also involved is the Military Medicine Institute of that nation. They sought to secure this patent “out of national interest” and noted they were not interested in enforcement should foreign pharma companies seek to collaborate in China to stop the pandemic. An IP attorney based in Shanghai, China observed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology would be wise to secure approval from the drug’s maker and owner—Gilead…. It could be deemed a provocative move for the local Wuhan institute to attempt to patent the Gilead drug without working with them. 

That last sentence puts the word “provocative” as quoted by Owen into a cautionary rather than condemnatory context. Although the article states that “it was reported” on 21 January, it is likely that this actually refers to the report in early February about the 21 January filing.

Owen further explains:

The contagious nature of the virus was confirmed by President Xi Jinping on January 20. Leaked documents have shown that even after officials knew they faced an epidemic, they delayed warning the public for six days.

This again, though, is old news – the documents confirming a “six-day delay” formed the basis for an Associated Press story on 15 April. According to the agency:

The documents show that the head of China’s National Health Commission, Ma Xiaowei, laid out a grim assessment of the situation in a confidential Jan. 14 teleconference with provincial health officials.

…The National Health Commission distributed a 63-page set of instructions to provincial health officials, obtained by the AP. The instructions, marked “not to be publicly disclosed,” ordered health officials nationwide to identify suspected cases, hospitals to open fever clinics, and doctors and nurses to don protective gear.

Clearly, the decision not to inform the public and the international community at this time is open to criticism, but the above does at least show that officials were preparing for increasing numbers of cases.

But what is the significance of all this as regards the patent? A “new-type coronavirus” was identified as the cause of “the viral pneumonia” in Wuhan on 9 January. This means that the coronavirus was publicly acknowledged as a public health threat at that time, even though there was a delay before the government warned of a pandemic. As such, there is no need to propose a “far advanced” understanding of the virus to explain a heightened interest in remdesivir, which was already known as a potential treatment for infection by coronaviruses. A patent application at this earlier date would not have been any more notable or controversial, and as such it is unlikely that there was a delay due to secrecy.

There are plenty of legitimate grounds on which to censure the Chinese authorities. We do not need over-hyped speculation and insinuation, nor do we need articles that gratuitously imply that Chinese scientists working in good faith to counter the spread of disease are somehow up to no good.