Supari accuses rich nations of creating viruses for profit

Sep 8, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – Indonesian health minister Siti Fadilah Supari, who is at the center of an international controversy over sharing of H5N1 avian influenza virus samples, recently claimed that developed countries are creating new viruses as a means of building new markets for vaccines, according to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report.

In February, Supari published a 182-page book titled Time for the World to Change: God is Behind the Avian Influenza Virus, which alleges that the United States intended to produce a biological weapon with the H5N1 virus and the World Health Organization (WHO) was conspiring to profit from H5N1 vaccines.

At a recent book discussion, Supari told the crowd that wealthy nations are creating "new viruses" that are meant to infect people in poorer nations in order to help drug companies sell more vaccines, according to a Sep 7 AFP report.

"The conspiracy between superpower nations and global organizations isn't a theory, isn't rhetoric, but it's something I've experienced myself," Supari told the crowd, according to AFP.

In early 2007 Indonesia announced that it had stopped sharing H5N1 virus samples with the 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 formed to address the concerns of Indonesia and other developing countries has met several times to work out a virus-sharing agreement between global health officials and developing countries, but has made little progress.

In early June Supari said the government would no longer report human H5N1 cases and deaths promptly to the WHO. Media outlets reported that she planned to report cases after they were reported in the news media or only at 6-month intervals.

Meanwhile, Amin Subandrio, a scientist who heads Indonesia's avian flu committee, said the government is also withholding the H5N1 virus from the country's own research community, according to the AFP report. "The minister of health is keeping the virus in the laboratories but they are giving no access to Indonesian scientists at the moment," he said.

Subandrio told AFP that though he supports Indonesia's concern about developing nations' lack of access to vaccine supplies and believes changes to the international virus-sharing system are needed, Supari's stances are risky.

He said there is no evidence to back up Supari's claim that wealthy nations are conspiring against developing nations to boost profits for pharmaceutical companies. "I really can't explain it 100 percent, but probably she received the wrong information from the wrong person," Subandrio told AFP.

Likewise, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono appears to support Supari's demands regarding the H5N1 virus-sharing issue, but not her conspiracy allegations, according to the AFP report. Dino Patti Djalal, presidential spokesman, told the news service, "In Indonesia, we recognize that there are issues to be resolved in the world health system, but certainly we don't believe in conspiracy theories."

In other developments, Supari told Antara, Indonesia's national news agency, that she hopes that negotiations on a material transfer agreement on the sharing of H5N1 samples can be settled at the WHO's next working group meeting in November, according to a Sep 5 report from Xinhua, China's state news agency.

She said the agreement should recognize the country's property rights to the virus, detail who will use the virus and what will be done with it, and spell out the financial and other benefits of the H5N1 research, Xinhua reported.

The WHO's H5N1 count for Indonesia is 135 cases and 110 deaths, but media reports have placed the numbers at 137 cases and 112 deaths.

See also:

Jul 15 CIDRAP News story "Indonesia details reasons for withholding H5N1 viruses"

Jun 5 CIDRAP News story "Indonesia quits offering prompt notice of H5N1 cases"

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