WHO working group grappling with virus-sharing issues

Aug 1, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Representatives from 24 countries are meeting in Singapore this week to propose solutions to virus-sharing problems that threaten to derail global monitoring of the H5N1 avian influenza virus and stall the development of new vaccines and treatments.

The 5-day meeting, sponsored by the World Health Organzation (WHO), includes representatives from four countries in each of the WHO's six regions, according to a Canadian Press (CP) report published today. Among the countries represented are Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Thailand, Canada, Britain, and the United States, the CP report said.

In December, Indonesia broke a long tradition of free international sharing of flu virus specimens by withholding its H5N1 virus samples as a protest against the high cost of commercial vaccines derived from such samples.

In response, the World Health Assembly, at its annual meeting in May, passed a resolution requesting that the WHO establish an international stockpile of vaccines for H5N1 or other potential pandemic viruses and develop measures to ensure equitable, affordable distribution of the vaccines in the event of a pandemic.

The resolution also called for creation of an interdisciplinary working group to draw up new "terms of reference" for the sharing of flu viruses by WHO collaborating centers and reference laboratories. The terms would identify the origin of influenza viruses going into the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance Network and make their use more transparent, the WHO said when the resolution was announced in May.

Few details are available about the agenda for the Singapore conference. However, the text of the May WHO resolution called for an interdisciplinary working group of 24 countries to revise the terms of reference, devise oversight mechanisms, draft standard terms and conditions for sharing viruses, and review all relevant documents about sharing influenza viruses and sequencing data.

The WHO had said that once finalized, the terms of reference would be submitted to an intergovernmental meeting of WHO member states and regional economic organizations. David Heymann, head of communicable diseases for the WHO, told CP that intergovernmental meeting would be held in November.

In advance of the World Health Assembly, Indonesia announced it would resume sharing its virus samples. However, in June a WHO official told CIDRAP news that the agency had received only three Indonesian H5N1 samples, gathered from two patients, this year.

Controversy about H5N1 virus sharing issues has worried global health officials and researchers. Some have voiced the concern that countries might claim their H5N1 samples are protected under intellectual property laws, which could hamper the monitoring of genetic mutations, the development of therapeutic products, and scientific work on a host of other pathogens.

At the International Conference on Options for the Control of Influenza in Toronto in June, Keiji Fukuda of the World Health Organization's (WHO's) Global Influenza Programme acknowledged the difficulties officials face in finding solutions to the virus-sharing problems.

"We do not know whether we will face a pandemic in a short time or a long time. Given that kind of uncertainty, I think there is a real practical want on the part of all of the parties involved not to have a long discussion and to come up with practical solutions," he said, as reported in a previous story.

See also:

May 23 WHO resolution on virus sharing

May 23 CIDRAP News story "WHO adopts resolution on virus sharing"

Jun 19 CIDRAP News story "Virus ownership claims could disrupt flu vaccine system"

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