The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg is working with a sample of the new coronavirus that's causing clusters of infections abroad — but can't share the material with other researchers across the country despite the public health urgency.

It was a lab at Erasmus MC, a medical centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands that sent a Saudi sample of the virus to Winnipeg, where scientists are looking for better ways to diagnose and treat the infection.

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Frank Plummer, scientific director of the National Microbiology Laboratory, says his researchers can't distribute the coronavirus sample to other labs in the country. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

But before they could start, officials had to sign a material transfer agreement, a contract that outlines the terms and conditions for using the coronavirus sample.

The Dutch "had pretty tight restrictions around how it could be used," Frank Plummer, scientific director of the National Microbiology Laboratory, said in an interview. "So there was a lot of negotiation and a lot of lawyers involved both with us and the Americans and others around the world, which slowed things down quite a bit."

CBC News was unable to reach researchers at Erasmus MC for comment.

Such agreements exist for different reasons — sometimes because countries want to make sure a dangerous bug won't fall into the wrong hands, sometimes because they want to exert their rights if a vaccine or treatment is developed. But the agreements also impede the research process, say scientists.

"We can't distribute [the virus] any further, which is a problem, because a lot of people would like to be working on this and can't," Plummer said.

On its website, Erasmus MC says the material transfer agreements (MTAs) cover issues like liability and limitations to commercial use.

"MTAs were implemented to facilitate scientific research as well as exchange of materials to the benefit of public health," the institute said in a statement posted on May 24.

"It is clearly a misunderstanding that Erasmus MC owns the virus. Only specific applications related to it, like vaccines and medicines can be patented."

In contrast, Plummer said China simply gave away samples of the H7N9 bird flu virus, as did Mexico with H1N1 swine flu in 2009.

‘Happy to be fired’

The researcher who first spotted the coronavirus in 2012 lost his job after sending it out of Saudi Arabia.

Ali Mohamed Zaki discovered the deadly pathogen last June at a microbiology lab at the Dr. Soliman Fakeeh Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. 

Zaki had been investigating the case of a 60-year-old man with a lung infection who died 18 days after symptoms started. When he couldn't identify the virus, he sent it to Ron Fouchier, a researcher at Erasmus MC who was able to sequence it. It was a coronavirus — never before seen in humans. 

Zaki said he also sent samples and clinical data to the Saudi health ministry, which did nothing. He also emailed a warning to ProMED, an international website for medical alerts, which helped doctors in the U.K. identify the world's second-known case.

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A colourized transmission electron micrograph showing the crown-shaped coronavirus that emerged in 2012. (U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

He was later fired from the hospital. It seems Saudi officials were upset Zaki gave away samples of the virus.

"It was the president of the hospital that said they don't want me to stay there anymore," Zaki explained. The hospital president said, "'They [Saudi officials] are forcing me to fire you. If you come back, they will make big trouble for you.'"

Ziad Memish, the Saudi deputy minister for public health, told Nature News that Zaki "either intentionally or inadvertently" circumvented national procedures. In an email to CBC News, Memish said simply, "the Nature piece describes things very clearly."

Zaki said he recognizes the value of giving away the virus, despite the professional consequences he faced.

"I am happy to be fired because I did a favour for humankind," Zaki said. "I don't regret about anything."

Zaki and Fouchier's team published a case report about the original patient in the New England Journal of Medicine in November 2012.

SARS experience

The World Health Organization says, since then, infections are known to have occurred in six countries: the United Kingdom, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and France. All cases have had a link to the Middle East.

"We still get the occasional cluster of infection," Gregory Hartl, media officer for WHO's communicable disease branch, said this week. "What we've seen in Saudi Arabia in May 2013 is the biggest single cluster."

Until doctors and researchers know how the virus works, it can't be controlled, Hartl said.

Hartl wouldn't comment on how material transfer agreements might limit international scientific collaboration, but notes "in general, the more we know about this virus, the better the world is."

"We need international collaboration and scientists are fully aware of the need to collaborate internationally. And of course there are… many concerns, intellectual property, publishing concerns," he said.

"The more work that is done on this, the faster we'll be able to learn something really useful and helpful to our efforts in the field to control the virus."

He suggested that all countries should look more closely at unexplained instances of severe respiratory illness and test them to make sure they're not dealing with the new coronavirus. The virus is named for the crown-like appearance it has under an electron microscope.

Those preliminary tests are possible because of the genetic sequencing laboratory work done in the Netherlands. Zaki also recognizes the experience of SARS, another member of the coronavirus family that killed 774 worldwide, including 44 in Toronto, a decade ago.

"Now we have a virus before us without an outbreak and the scientific community have a diagnostic test, so we are in a very better situation [than]

with SARS."

For researchers like Zaki and Plummer, there is still work to do on the new coronavirus, now called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus or MERS. Chief among the questions include how humans become infected, where the virus originated and how it spreads.

Last week, Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease special from Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, joined WHO experts in Saudi Arabia, Plummer said. The WHO team is monitoring and guiding the health ministry's response to the outbreak. McGeer was part of Toronto's SARS response and contracted the infection.

With files from CBC's Kelly Crowe