Patent Zero

Does the CDC own a patent on Ebola?

Claim:   The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) owns a patent on Ebola.

TRUE: The CDC patented a strain of Ebola in 2010.
FALSE: The CDC created Ebola and obtained a patent for it to restrict or profit from the development of a vaccine.

Example:   [Collected via email, October 2014]

Is there any truth to the rumor that The United States Government is one of 6 owners of a patent on the Ebola virus? Does this mean they have the right to demand blood samples from any victims? Can they force those on government health care to take experimental Ebola vaccines that they develop? Is the CDC purposely allowing Ebola to enter the country in order to cause a "run" on a newly developed vaccine?

Origins:   The 2014 Ebola outbreak began in December 2013 and is the deadliest recorded since the discovery of ebolaviruses in 1976. The severity and scope of the 2014 Ebola outbreak has caused significant global concern over the threat posed by the disease, and a number of rumors have resulted.

One pervasive strain of rumors centers around "ownership" of what many understand to be the Ebola virus: more specifically, ownership of a patent granted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2010, Patent No. CA2741523A1. An abstract for that patent reads:
The invention provides the isolated human Ebola (hEbola) viruses denoted as Bundibugyo (EboBun) deposited with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ("CDC"; Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America) on November 26, 2007 and accorded an accession number 200706291.
As the Ebola outbreak intensified, concern over the spread of the disease steadily increased; and the seemingly-suspect CDC patent on Ebola began to circulate on social media. Many users interpreted use of words like "invention" to indicate the U.S. government or its agents had literally invented Ebola in the lab as a tool to control the population or push forward an agenda involving expensive vaccines and cures. However, the 2014 Ebola outbreak is due to a strain of the virus known as Ebola Zaire and not the EboBun strain for which the CDC patent was obtained,
so any pharmaceutical dollars to be made would not be affected by a patent protecting a strain of the virus not central to the current outbreak.

Speculation often centers upon the reasons any agency (government or privately held) would patent a virus such as Ebola if not to restrict the development of a cure or to capitalize on the profits from a potential cure. But at the time the Ebola patent was granted in 2010, the area of human gene patents was not as legally clear as it became following a Supreme Court decision a few years later. On 13 June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the case of Association For Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics in respect to whether isolated genetic material was patent eligible. Justice Clarence Thomas opined in the decision that "genes and the information they encode are not patent-eligible ... simply because they have been isolated from the surrounding genetic material," and he added:
In this case, by contrast, Myriad did not create anything. To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention.
On 9 October 2014, professor of biological sciences at Purdue University and Ebola researcher David Sanders addressed rumors about the CDC's patent on Ebola. Sanders explained that overall the practice of patenting "life forms" is not uncommon for the CDC, noting that patents like the one the CDC holds on the EboBun strain of Ebola can circumvent for-profit patenting as well as facilitate broader research:
The CDC does hold some patents on life forms, but it generally does this for the common good, so a commercial company can't come along and patent it. The CDC lets researchers work with the strain without fees.
Until the Supreme Court's 2013 decision on isolated genetic material, the ambiguity involved made such patents a potential necessity. In light of it the CDC's intent in patenting Ebola appears to be far less nefarious.

Last updated:   10 October 2014


    Libov, Charlotte.   "US Govt Holds Patent on Ebola, But Researcher Rejects Conspiracy Theories."
    NewsMax Health.   9 October 2014.

    Mears, Bill.   "Court: Human Genes Cannot Be Patented"
    CNN.   13 June 2014.

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