Indonesia Defiant on Refusal to Share Bird Flu Samples
JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 26 — Indonesian health officials remained defiant today at the start of a three-day meeting with the World Health Organization saying Indonesia refused to share its H5N1 bird flu samples with the organization’s researchers unless their country is guaranteed affordable access to vaccines.
Indonesia’s announcement in February that it would not share its samples has been criticized by researchers as a major departure from a 50-year-old worldwide system of free virus sharing, one that would severely limit the ability of the World Health Organization to monitor the ever-changing virus.
But the country has stood firm on the need to change a system that it says keeps life-saving pharmaceuticals out of the reach of poor countries.
“We must work together to change the perverse incentives that have resulted in developing countries being disadvantaged,” the Indonesian health minister, Siti Fadillah Supari, said today in her opening remarks.
Supari said she also urgently wanted assistance for poor nations in developing “domestic vaccine production.”
Indonesia has had the greatest number of human cases of the H5N1 strain of bird flu. Of 281 cases worldwide, 81 were recorded there, and 63 of those were fatal.
David Heymann, assistant director general for communicable diseases at the World Health Organization, said today that he recognized the inequalities in the current virus-sharing system. But he also emphasized the importance of sharing viruses to help protect global health.
“It is critical that all developing countries have access to pandemic vaccines,” Heymann said. “At the same time it is critical that the world share its novel influenza viruses” for risk assessment and the development of vaccines.
Countries now send samples of the virus to research centers accredited by the World Health Organization in the United States, Britain, Japan and Australia. Those centers develop potential vaccines that are freely shared with pharmaceutical companies, which then manufacture vaccines that are often too expensive for most developing nations.
Triono Soendoro, director general of Indonesia’s National Institute of Health, said in an interview that it often takes weeks to send the virus abroad and to receive the resulting research. He said a way must be worked out to allow more research to be done in Indonesia.
Officials said they hoped to reach an initial agreement by Wednesday that would spur Indonesia to resume sharing its samples. Changes in the sharing mechanism is to be discussed in April and May.
Public health officials have long feared that the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which now mainly infects poultry and other birds, could mutate into a form more easily passed between humans, sparking a pandemic. (www.nytimes.com)