Indonesia denies seeking payment for virus samples

Apr 23, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – An Indonesian health official, responding to recent comments by the US health secretary, today denied that Indonesia wants financial compensation if it resumes sharing its H5N1 avian influenza virus samples.

Widjaja Lukito, an adviser to Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari, said the country wants governments and pharmaceutical companies to develop a mechanism to ensure that developing countries have access to affordable pandemic influenza vaccines, the Associated Press (AP) reported today.

"There are many types of benefit programs that can be discussed. One could be a kind of revolving fund developed by pharmaceutical companies," Lukito told the AP.

He also suggested that the mechanism could be a multilateral trust, financially supported by governments, vaccine producers, and individual benefactors, to ensure that vaccine production and distribution are equitable, according to the AP report.

Indonesia announced in early 2007 it had stopped sharing H5N1 virus samples with the World Health Organization (WHO). The country based its action on what it saw as a lack of access to pandemic vaccines that are produced by pharmaceutical companies in developed nations from the shared samples.

A WHO working group dedicated to solving the virus-sharing issue has met several times since the dispute arose, but has made little progress. The issue will likely surface in May at the WHO's World Health Assembly, and the working group's next formal meeting is scheduled for November, according to previous reports.

Earlier this month, US Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Mike Leavitt met with Indonesian officials, including Supari, during a tour of three Southeast Asian countries. In blog posts on his talks in Indonesia, Leavitt wrote that there were no breakthroughs in the vaccine-sharing stalemate, but that representatives from the United States and Indonesia would keep negotiating over the next 60 days.

Leavitt wrote that Indonesia's concern about equitable access to pandemic vaccines was legitimate but that he had the impression Indonesia wanted payment for its shared virus samples. "What she says she wants is for the contributing countries to be eligible for some share of the value commercial companies create out of the influenza samples they provide," he wrote on his blog. He also warned that the virus-sharing controversy may never be resolved.

However, Lukito told the AP that the talks between Leavitt and Supari may have been hampered by poor communication on both sides.

In other developments, the US Embassy in Jakarta yesterday denied recent allegations in a book by Supari that the United States intends to make biological weapons out of avian influenza viruses, the Jakarta Post reported today.

A press release from the US Embassy said Supari's claims "are preposterous and a grave injustice to the people of the United States," the Post reported.

The embassy statement also said the United States is committed to working with other countries and international groups to halt the spread of avian flu, prevent a pandemic, and plan for pandemic-related health emergencies, according to the Post.

In February, Supari published a 182-page book, Time for the World to Change: God is Behind the Avian Influenza Virus, that included the claims about the United States, as well as allegations that the WHO was conspiring to profit from H5N1 vaccines.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono wrote a foreword to the book but later ordered Supari to recall copies of it, according to previous media reports. However, he has said he supports Supari's calls for equitable international virus-sharing policies.

See also:

Apr 17 CIDRAP News story "HHS secretary blogs on impasse with Indonesia"

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