Indonesia wants legal pact on sharing H5N1 samples

Mar 14, 2007 (CIDRAP News) –Indonesia vowed today not to share H5N1 avian influenza virus samples with the World Health Organization (WHO) until it has a "legally binding" guarantee that the samples won't be used to develop vaccines that the country can't afford, according to news services.

Indonesian Health Minister Siti Failah Supari told reporters in Jakarta today,"We will not share our virus sample, without a change in the rules," the Associated press (AP) reported. The statement signaled the continuation of a standoff that has lasted several weeks.

Indonesia has not supplied any H5N1 samples to the WHO since the end of 2006, the WHO has said. Steps toward resolution of the problem have been reported twice in the past month, but no final agreement has been reached.

Researchers need current H5N1 samples to trace changes in the virus, map its spread, and develop vaccines in preparation for the threat of a human flu pandemic.

Supari complained that WHO regulations give countries no control over how their viral samples are used, according to a Bloomberg News report. "Vaccine makers will try to produce and sell them [vaccines] to us at high price," she said. "Poorer countries shouldn't become a commercial target."

The WHO announced early in February that Indonesia had stopped sharing H5N1 isolates. After a Feb 16 meeting, officials said they had agreed in principle that Indonesia would resume sharing samples while the WHO would work to ensure that developing countries have access to vaccines based on their samples.

In a Feb 28 letter, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan promised Indonesia that its viral specimens would be used "for public health risk assessment purposes only," the AP reported. She also promised that, pending a formal agreement, the WHO would obtain Indonesia's permission before sending any samples to a vaccine producer.

But Supari said the letter was not enough, according to the AP. "That's just an agreement in principle," she said. "We need one that is legally binding."

Supari said Asia-Pacific health ministers will meet in Jakarta Mar 27 and 28 to propose changes in the WHO's virus-sharing system, the story said.

According to a Reuters report today, Supari said the proposed changes also would need to be discussed at a WHO advisory board meeting in May. She suggested that would be the earliest that the country would resume providing samples.

The WHO's Southeast Asia director, Samlee Plianbangchang, voiced confidence that the meeting later this month in Jakarta would do much to resolve the problem, the AP reported.

See also:

Feb 16 CIDRAP News story "Indonesia to resume sharing H5N1 samples with WHO"

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