Virus-sharing pact eludes WHO group, but work will continue

Nov 26, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – A World Health Organization (WHO) group that recently met to work out an agreement to ease the global sharing of H5N1 avian influenza viruses failed to resolve the issue, but signaled that work on the issues would continue.

The WHO working group on virus sharing met in Geneva from Nov 20 through Nov 23. An impasse over the virus-sharing issue began last December when Indonesia, the nation hardest hit by the H5N1 virus, stopped sending samples to WHO collaborating centers to protest the high cost and lack of access to vaccines that pharmaceutical companies are developing from the strains the country has shared.

"Nobody can fault you for not trying. It is so close, yet so far away," Margaret Chan, the WHO's director-general, said in a session on the final day of the meeting, Reuters reported on Nov 23.

Indonesia, represented by its health minister Siti Fadilah Supari, pushed for a material transfer agreement (MTA) for each virus sample it sends outside the country, specifying that the sample be used only for diagnostic purposes, according to a report today from Reuters. Commercial use of the virus would require the permission of the country that provided the sample.

The country's health minister has said that retaining the intellectual property rights to the H5N1 samples would ensure its citizens greater access to global pandemic vaccine stockpiles at more affordable prices.

Health ministry spokeswoman Lily Sulistiowati told Reuters today that Indonesia hopes negotiations over H5N1 sample sharing will continue. However, she said the demand for an MTA was nonnegotiable. "We will not send samples overseas without an MTA," Sulistiowati said.

However, John Lange, the United States' special representative for avian and pandemic influenza, said in the earlier Reuters report that he opposed automatic rewards for each sample a country shares. He maintained that it is important to protect patents related to the H5N1 virus, because vaccine development is risky, time-consuming, and expensive for pharmaceutical companies.

There were few detailed reports from each day of the conference, but a notable exception was a series of posts from Edward Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project, a watchdog group based in Austin, Tex., that monitors biodefense research safety. The Sunshine Group has collaborated with the Third World Network, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for developing countries, on reports that track patent activity related to the H5N1 virus. Hammond's posts appeared on the Effect Measure public health blog.

In a Nov 24 post that summed up the results of the virus-sharing meeting, Hammond wrote that though the working group did not deliver the agreement that many had hoped for, it did make progress on some issues. The meeting produced a rough-draft text for moving forward that includes several promising ideas that countries such as Chile and Brazil brought to the meeting. However, he faulted the United States and the European Union for their reluctance to address problems, such as a perceived lack of transparency, with the Global Influenza Surveillance Network.

Hammond wrote that the working group will likely reconvene for five days in July 2008. "'More meetings' is not an outcome satisfying to many and provides no immediate relief, but it remains the most important outcome of the meeting. The text has many good ideas," he noted.

"As important as the current Indonesia viruses are, this process is no longer Indonesia versus everyone else. There are many more countries and interests now at the table," Hammond wrote, adding that he believes that the focus on equitable benefits from influenza research will eventually improve pandemic preparedness and public health.

Gregory Hartl, WHO spokesman, said the next step for work on the virus-sharing issue is not clear, but officials will probably meet in a smaller working group in May ahead of the WHO's World Health Assembly (WHA) that month, according to the Nov 23 Reuters report. He said a full working group session would be required after the WHA to finalize a virus-sharing agreement.

See also:

Nov 19 CIDRAP News story "WHO group to tackle H5N1 virus-sharing dispute"

Effect Measure blog site

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