Progress reported at WHO meeting on virus sharing

Dec 15, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – A World Health Organization (WHO) group that met last week in Geneva to solve problems related to global sharing of H5N1 avian influenza viruses made progress on language spelling out the commitment to sharing both the viruses and benefits, a senior US government official told CIDRAP News.

The Intergovernmental Meeting on Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (IGM) wrapped up 6 days of sessions on Dec 13 with a plan to meet again just before or during the WHO's World Health Assembly in May 2009, according to the government official. The official, who requested anonymity, said the group still has several difficult issues to address.

Representatives from more than 100 countries participated in the negotiations, and the meeting was attended by a host of observers, nongovernmental organization representatives, and industry groups.

Topics for the next meeting will likely include difficult intellectual property (IP) issues related to virus-sharing and agreements on and mechanisms for sharing virus samples and ensuring benefits for countries that provide their viruses, the official said.

Last week's meeting was the IGM's third attempt to resolve H5N1 virus sharing issues. In early 2007, Indonesia—the country that has been hit hardest by the virus—announced that it had ceased sharing virus samples with the WHO. The aim of the move was to protest what Indonesia regarded as its lack of access to vaccines and treatments made from the virus by companies in more developed nations.

Indonesia has pushed for global virus-sharing policies it considers more transparent and fair to developing nations. The IGM first met in November 2007, and Indonesia and the United States recently have had bilateral talks to help clarify some of the issues, the US official said.

While continuing to withhold samples, Indonesia started sending genetic sequences of its H5N1 viruses in May to a new public database, the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID), which was formed in 2006 by a group of 70 scientists and health officials to ease the sharing of H5N1 sequences. Anyone can use the database if they register and agree to share and credit the use of others' data, analyze findings jointly, publish results collaboratively, and not push IP rights issues that relate to diagnostic, drug, and vaccine developments.

The senior US official said the key element in IGM's progress last week was shifting away from discussing voluntary versus mandatory virus sharing and focusing more on a commitment to sharing. "Putting the debate into a different context was conducive," the official said, crediting the US and Indonesia for their work on a compromise.

A statement on the meeting results has not yet been posted on the WHO's Web site, but Intellectual Property Watch, a nonprofit IP news publication and service, reported today that the breakthrough text connecting sharing with benefits reads, "Recognize that member states have a commitment to share on an equal footing H5N1 and other influenza viruses of human pandemic potential and the benefits, considering these as equally important parts of the collective action for global public health."

Participants asked the WHO to work on several technical issues before the next IGM session, according to IP Watch. They include a mechanism for virus tracking, terms of reference for the WHO's collaborating centers, revisions to the material transfer agreement technical section, and the needs, priorities, and financing options for virus-sharing benefits.

Siti Fadilah Supari, Indonesia's health minister, addressed the meeting on Dec 8, the IGM's opening day, according to a press release from the ministry that was sent to reporters. In her remarks, she recommended that the WHO consider an offer from GISAID to allow member states to use a new tracking system that it has developed to complement its new influenza sequence database.

Some of the difficult IP issues that remain include defining what material may be patented and spelling out the benefits that a source country or researcher can gain in return for providing virus samples, IP Watch reported.

See also:

Background materials on Dec 8-13 WHO meeting

May 18 CIDRAP News story "Experts welcome Indonesia's vow to share H5N1 data"

GISAID Web site

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