WHO has draft agreement in virus-sharing dispute

May 22, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – The World Health Organization (WHO) has negotiated a preliminary agreement designed to maintain the international sharing of influenza virus samples while ensuring that developing countries can obtain pandemic flu vaccines, news services reported today.

A draft resolution passed by a WHO committee today says the agency will develop rules to ensure timely sharing of viruses with the WHO and "fair and equitable distribution of pandemic influenza vaccines at affordable prices in the event of a pandemic," the Associated Press (AP) reported.

But the resolution, which is expected to be approved by the World Health Assembly of 193 WHO members tomorrow, does not define "timely sharing" of samples or fair distribution of vaccines, the AP said.

Reuters reported that the resolution calls for setting up a working group to revise the "terms of reference" for WHO-affiliated laboratories that analyze viruses and to write rules for sharing them with other parties, including researchers and vaccine makers. The resolution sets a year-long timeline for completing those steps, with a goal of getting the plan approved at next year's World Health Assembly.

The draft agreement is a response to Indonesia's complaint that drug companies can use H5N1 avian flu viruses provided by Indonesia to make vaccines the country can't afford. In protest, Indonesia stopped sending virus samples to the WHO last December. Last week the Indonesian government said it had resumed sending specimens. But WHO officials said only three have been sent so far, according to Reuters, despite a string of more than 15 human H5N1 cases in Indonesia since the start of this year.

While the new rules are being developed, countries are expected to continue sharing virus samples with the WHO, Reuters reported. Researchers use the samples to develop vaccines and to monitor the viruses' spread, its ability to infect humans, and its resistance to drugs.

A proposal from developing countries led by Indonesia had called for the WHO to supply H5N1 virus samples to vaccine makers only with the consent of the donor country.

But the resolution adopted by the WHO committee says that during "public health emergencies of international concern," manufacturers should have "full access" to viruses from the WHO, the AP reported. The agreement doesn't precisely define a public health emergency, but WHO officials said a flu pandemic would qualify, according to the story.

The Reuters story said the draft resolution is the product of "arduous" negotiations among the WHO member countries.

The negotiations were chaired by Viroj Tangcharoensathien of Thailand. He commented, "Trust has now gradually been regained in the work of the WHO's Global Influenza Surveillance Network, which is the backbone of influenza containment."

The WHO has coordinated the international sharing of flu virus samples by national and WHO collaborating laboratories for more than 50 years. Samples of both seasonal flu viruses and novel strains like H5N1 are analyzed.

See also:

May 15 CIDRAP News story "Indonesia: H5N1 samples going to WHO again"

May 14 CIDRAP News story "Virus sharing high on agenda as WHO meeting begins"

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