Thailand joins Indonesia in withholding H5N1 strains

Editor's note: Contrary to this story, information obtained Mar 23 from the World Health Organization and from another news report indicated that Thailand had no plans to withhold H5N1 virus samples. See link at end of story for more information.

Mar 22, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Thailand today announced that it was joining Indonesia's boycott on sharing its H5N1 avian flu virus samples with vaccine developers and the international health community.

Mongkol Na Songkha, Thailand's public health minister, told reporters in Bangkok today that the country has received no special benefits from sharing samples it has collected from avian flu patients, Bloomberg News reported.

"Drugmakers rarely help us. They only gave us a small amount of vaccine, just like a donation," Songkha told Bloomberg News.

The country has reported no human avian flu cases in 2007. The last Thai case was confirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Sep 27, 2006. Thailand has had 25 H5N1 cases and 17 deaths since 2003, ranking it the fourth hardest hit country.

Indonesia stopped sharing its H5N1 samples with the WHO at the end of 2006, and in February announced that it was withholding them because the strains were being used to develop vaccines that the country couldn't afford.

Researchers need current H5N1 samples to trace changes in the virus, map its spread, and develop vaccines in preparation for the threat of a human flu pandemic.

Indonesia has demanded a "legally binding" guarantee from the WHO and pharmaceutical companies that its citizens would have access to vaccines produced from Indonesian H5N1 sample strains. The country is hosting a meeting with the WHO and other Asian nations in Jakarta on Mar 26 and 27 to discuss vaccine access issues.

An Indonesian official told Bloomberg News that he was pleased Thailand decided to withhold its H5N1 strains. "We hope a joint agreement on vaccine distribution could be achieved," Bayu Krisnamurthi, chief of Indonesia's committee on avian and pandemic flu, told Bloomberg.

Thailand's decision to withhold H5N1 virus samples signals a new round of friction between the country and pharmaceutical companies over access to medications. In January the country issued a "compulsory license" that allowed it to make or buy generic versions of an Abbott Laboratory HIV/AIDS drug, Reuters reported.

In return, Abbott announced on Mar 14 that it would stop launching new medications in Thailand, Reuters reported, adding that Doctors Without Borders and other health groups accused Abbott of depriving Thailand's poor of lifesaving medicines.

See also:

Mar 23 CIDRAP News story "Thailand to continue sharing H5N1 samples"

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