Griffith Law School PhD candidate Michelle Rourke has been awarded a 2017 Fulbright Scholarship to further her research on the commodification of viruses.
Captain Rourke, a scientific research officer with the Australian Defence Force, will spend 10 months with the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, Washington DC.
“Viruses pose the greatest infectious disease risk to global health due to their ability to rapidly mutate, jump host species and evade vaccines and drug treatments,’’ she said.
“It is essential that scientists have access to virus samples so they can conduct lifesaving research.
“But there’s been a shift in the way international law treats viruses. They used to be part of the sharing economy but are now regarded as tradeable commodities.”
This is causing major threats to global health because some developing countries have not been willing to share their viruses.
“In 2007 for example, Indonesia claimed sovereignty over pandemic influenza viruses circulating in the country and declared it wasn’t going to share samples with the World Health Organisation (WHO) as per the norm.
“Scientists would normally share those viral samples with WHO for analysis.
“Often the WHO would send those viruses on to other researchers and vaccine manufacturers to help develop antivirals and vaccines.
“But at the time, there was no framework in place that guaranteed developing countries would have access to those vaccines once made.”
To help rectify this problem, in 2011 WHO established the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) framework to recognise the sovereign right of countries over their viruses.
“But it only applies to pandemic flu viruses so every other virus with the potential to harm humans is not covered by this policy.
“My aim is to develop an access and benefit sharing system for all viruses that will better ensure global health security and a more equitable distribution of the benefits arising from medical research.
“The Fulbright is an incredible opportunity to travel and be able to work with experts in this field. I hope to absorb and learn as much as I can.”
The Fulbright program is the largest educational scholarship of its kind and aims to promote mutual understanding through educational exchange.
Michelle is one of 11 students in Australia awarded Fulbright Postgraduate Scholarships.