- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008


A dispute over sharing samples of the bird-flu virus between Indonesia and the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) is jeopardizing efforts to prevent a global influenza pandemic and putting lives at risk, international health officials warn.

The row centers on profits made by Western pharmaceutical companies from vaccines developed using the samples, and the potential benefits of vaccines to poor nations.

Indonesian officials say their country is being cheated out of benefits from vaccines that it cannot afford.

Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari raised the issue in a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt, saying Indonesia is not seeking royalties or direct payments.

Instead, she said, her nation wants “a method that leads to the allocation of values derived by commercial interests into one commonly defined system, which will provide benefits to those that have made contributions.”

Last year, Indonesia stopped sending samples of the H5N1 bird-flu virus from new outbreaks to the WHO.

WHO labs analyze and gene-sequence the samples to find new variations that might herald the much-feared mutation of the virus into a form easily transmitted from human to human.

“You might say we’re [statistically] overdue for another flu pandemic,” WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told UPI.

“The less information we have [about new forms of the virus], the less able we are to protect global public health,” he said.

Health officials fear a repeat of the 1918-1919 global flu pandemic, often called Spanish flu, which killed at least 20 million people and is thought to have originated from an avian form of the virus somewhere in Asia.

Data from virus samples sent to the WHO is used by pharmaceutical companies to develop new vaccines.

In recent years, Indonesia has reported the most human deaths from bird flu, more than 100. Human-to-human transmission, however, remains rare.

“The two main planks of the process are developing working procedures for virus-sample transfer” and “a system for allocating the benefits” derived from analysis of the samples, Mr. Hartl said.

The Indonesians want the two issues linked, but the United States is insisting they be kept separate.

“Linking sample-sharing to payment in any form will immediately begin to erode our ability to make vaccines at all, because once the practice of free and open sharing of viruses stops, the slope is slippery, and there will be no end to the demands,” Mr. Leavitt wrote last week in his blog (https://secretarysblog.hhs.gov).

“World health should not be the subject of barter,” he wrote.

During his visit to Jakarta last week, Indonesian officials told Mr. Leavitt they wanted the issue resolved within two months.

He responded by saying that, after that time, the WHO should move ahead with new virus-sharing arrangements without Indonesian participation — effectively setting a deadline for negotiations.

“We will work on this for the next 60 days. If we haven’t been successful in resolving the matter, I think it will be time for the world to just accept Indonesia’s unwillingness to participate in the WHO influenza system, and move on,” he wrote.

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