Feb 16, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Indonesia and the World Health Organization (WHO) agreed today that Indonesia will resume sharing its H5N1 avian influenza virus samples while the WHO will work to ensure that developing countries have access to pandemic vaccines based on viruses they supply.
Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari met with David Heymann, WHO's acting director-general for communicable diseases, today to discuss problems that led to the announcement last week that Indonesia would stop sharing its H5N1 samples with the WHO. The country vowed to share the samples only with groups that agreed to use them for noncommercial purposes.
Indonesia's rationale for withholding its H5N1 samples was that it is unfair for foreign countries to use the samples to develop vaccines that poorer nations can't afford. Indonesia has been among the nations hit hardest by avian influenza and has had the most human deaths from the disease.
The decision to restrict virus sharing with the WHO sparked concern among avian flu researchers, who were suspicious when the country soon afterward signed a memorandum of understanding with US vaccine producer Baxter International. The memorandum laid a framework for future collaborations or supply agreements, according to a Feb 7 Baxter press release.
Researchers need access to current H5N1 strains not only to develop pandemic vaccines, but also to monitor the virus's evolution and track the global spread of the disease.
Some scientists, however, have said they understand Indonesia's stance. For example, an editorial in the Feb 17 issue of The Lancet states that Indonesia's attempt to secure an affordable vaccine for its population is understandable.
"The fairest way forward would be for WHO to seek an international agreement that would ensure that developing countries have equal access to a pandemic vaccine at an affordable price," the editorial says. "Such a move would demonstrate global solidarity in preparing for the next pandemic."
A joint statement released by the WHO and Indonesia after today's meeting says that Indonesia's leadership alerted the international community to the need for developing countries to benefit from sharing their virus samples, "including access to quality pandemic vaccines at affordable prices."
Further, Indonesia agrees that "responsible, free, and rapid sharing of influenza viruses with WHO, including H5N1, is necessary for global public health security and will resume sharing viruses for this purpose," the statement says.
The WHO voices support for Indonesia's short-term strategy to continue discussions with vaccine companies to meet its vaccine needs. For a longer-term solution, the WHO is working with Indonesia to develop local vaccine production capacity through technology transfer, according to the statement.
Also, the WHO promises to work with Indonesia and other countries to develop mechanisms to promote equitable distribution and supplies of pandemic vaccines produced from the viruses the countries share.
Finally, the two parties pledge to convene a meeting of selected countries in the Asia-Pacific region to identify ways to provide fair access to vaccines and production capacity. Heymann told Reuters the meeting would be held sometime in March.
Feb 7 CIDRAP News story "System for global pandemic vaccine development challenged"