For the past six weeks, about 800 to 1,000 doses of an experimental ebola vaccine have been sitting in a Canadian laboratory instead of being dispensed to West Africa. The delay, it would now appear, may be on account of an intellectual property spat.

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Back on August 13th, the Canadian government announced that it would donate doses of its experimental Ebola vaccine to the international community. The World Health Organization would determine who receives it. The Canadian government still owns the patent, but it's licensed to a private company, the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The 800 to 1,000 doses should've been shipped to West Africa by now, but they haven't. The federal government says the delay is with the WHO, which is figuring out who should get the vaccine and how to ship it properly.

But according to ScienceInsider, there's another possibility: A U.S.-based company that purchased a license to the vaccine's commercialization from the Canadian feds is "dragging its feet." From Kai Kupferschmidt's article:

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At the center of the controversy is NewLink Genetics, a small company in Ames, Iowa, that bought a license to the vaccine's commercialization from the Canadian government in 2010, and is now suddenly caught up in what WHO calls "the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times." Becker and others say the company has been dragging its feet the past 2 months because it is worried about losing control over the development of the vaccine. But Brian Wiley, vice president of business development at NewLink Genetics, says the company is doing all it can. "Our program has moved forward at an unprecedented pace," he says. Even if it took another few months, "we would still be breaking a record in terms of getting this into patients." Wiley says the holdup is "the administrative process": agreeing on a protocol, getting collaborators to sign the right contracts, securing insurance in case something goes wrong. [emphasis added]

Breaking a record? Rights contracts and securing insurance? How about trying to cut through all the red tape and striving to save lives instead? What's more, during a crisis like this, governments should step in and offer special protections to private firms. In this case, it's the Canadian government that owns the patent, after all.

The CBC has also been investigating this story:

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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."

What a horrible mess. While it's understandable that there are certain risks involved when using experimental drugs, this case clearly warrants special consideration. Considering that front-line workers will (likely) be the first to receive the vaccine, it's safe to assume they'd welcome it (to date 216 healthcare workers have been killed in the epidemic). Potential recipients should be advised of the risks and offered the choice to take the vaccine or not.

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This epidemic is serving as a wake-up call to the world. The Ebola response has been dawdling and mired in bureaucratic nonsense. Worse, it also smacks of epidemic profiteering.

Check out the articles at ScienceInsider and CBC News.

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Image: Alex011973/Shutterstock.