Could Ebola vaccine delay be due to an intellectual property spat?

Questions remain over why a made-in-Canada experimental Ebola vaccine is still sitting in a Winnipeg laboratory instead of being dispensed in West Africa, with a scientific journal suggesting an intellectual property dispute may be to blame.

Canada says it still owns patent, but it has licensed rights to private company

Who owns the Ebola vaccine?

8 years ago
Duration 1:40
Canada promised to send the Ebola vaccine to the international community over 6 weeks ago, but it sits in a Winnipeg lab. Intellectual property spat suspected

Questions remain over why a made-in-Canada experimental Ebola vaccine is still sitting in a Winnipeg laboratory instead of being dispensed in West Africa, with a scientific journal suggesting that an intellectual property dispute may be to blame.

It's been more than six weeks since the Canadian government promised to donate the vaccine to the international community to help fight the ongoing Ebola outbreak.

About 800 to 1,000 doses of the vaccine, which was developed at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, are supposed to be shipped to West Africa.

The federal government has said the delay is with the World Health Organization, which is helping to determine who should get the vaccine and how to ship the doses properly.

But a story published this week on ScienceInsider, a news website of the journal Science, raises the theory that a U.S.-based company that purchased a licence to the vaccine's commercialization from the federal government is "dragging its feet."

The article by Berlin-based journalist Kai Kupferschmidt cites scientists who are concerned that NewLink Genetics is "worried about losing control over the development of the vaccine."

"The scientists I talked to are unhappy. They feel it could have gone faster," Kupferschmidt told CBC News on Thursday. "The question becomes, who's in control of this process?"

Brian Wiley, NewLink's vice-president of business development, told Kupferschmidt the company is doing all it can, but the holdup has to do with administrative processes.

"We would still be breaking a record in terms of getting this into patients" even if it took another few months, Wiley was quoted as saying in the article.

Canada says it still owns patent

For months, CBC News has been asking what the Canadian government received from NewLink Genetics and another company, Defyrus/LeafBio, in exchange for licensing rights for the experimental Ebola vaccine and the ZMapp drug cocktail, respectively.

It's also not known whether Canada still has a voice in the development and dissemination of the treatments.

Officials with the Public Health Agency of Canada have maintained that the contracts are confidential, but they affirm that Canada still owns the patent and the intellectual property.

"The Canadian government holds the patent for this vaccine and has licensed the rights to NewLink Genetics through its wholly owned subsidiary BioProtection Systems to commercialize the product," an agency spokesperson stated in an email to CBC News.

"The agency retained rights related to research and emergency response."

With the number of Ebola cases almost doubling every three weeks, and scientists fearing they could be losing the battle, Kupferschmidt said the need for a vaccine is growing.
"I do wonder whether it isn't possible to somehow cut through all that red tape and try to help get this vaccine on the road as fast as possible," he said.

Dr. Gregory Taylor, Canada's chief public health officer, was asked on Thursday about what the issue was with the delay in getting the Canadian-made vaccine out.

"In terms of the vaccine, it's not a stall as much as this has never happened before. The WHO has never done this before," Taylor said.

"The world has never done this before with an experimental vaccine. If one of the vaccines actually injured someone or hurt someone, it would set everything back.

"You already have people who don’t trust the West coming in, people who are hiding because they believe that the westerners are bringing the virus in," he added. "If you add medications that actually injure someone, that would be extremely difficult."

With files from the CBC's Karen Pauls