Indonesia refuses again to share bird flu samples

Indonesia has again refused to share bird flu specimens with the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO had earlier called for a global sharing of data on the disease in order to prevent an international pandemic.

The nation's health minister Siti Fadilah Supari says before any bird flu specimens are sent to the WHO, Indonesia needs assurances that poorer nations will have affordable access to any pandemic vaccines developed from the virus and they are not only available to the rich.

The health minister has recently returned from a WHO intergovernmental conference in Geneva aimed at rebuilding a global system for sharing flu viruses.

Indonesia wants countries who share samples to have full control of their use and access to vaccines.

Supari says an equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of viruses through a fair, transparent and equitable mechanism is needed and is the moral thing to do.

Supari says the meeting failed to come up with any material on a transfer agreement and there is no obligation on the part of Indonesia to send bird flu virus samples to the WHO.

Indonesia has adopted this stance despite being the country hardest hit by the H5N1 bird flu virus with 91 human deaths to date of the 206 known human deaths; Vietnam ranks second with 46 deaths, and Thailand third with 17.

The WHO had earlier urged its 193 members to share information on the deadly virus as this is regarded as vital in order to monitor whether it has mutated, become drug resistant or grown more transmissible.

The WHO agreed last May to revamp its 50-year-old system for sharing flu virus samples with researchers and drug firms and wanted its 191 member states to adopt an agreement by May.

It is now likely that officials will meet in a smaller working group ahead of the WHO's annual assembly next May, but that will not stop experts worrying that the constantly mutating H5N1 virus could change into a form easily transmissible among humans and sweep the world in months, killing millions of people.

Indonesia has proposed any commercial use of the virus would require prior consent of the country providing it, who would retain the intellectual property rights and have access to global vaccine stockpiles at an affordable price.

Indonesia has the support of Nigeria who say sharing of virus samples as well as benefits should be made "mandatory for all".

The U.S. special representative for avian and pandemic influenza, John Lange, has however ruled out any automatic reward for sharing saying research and development of vaccines was "very risky, time-consuming and extremely expensive" and it was critical to protect patents to ensure their continued development.

Sixteen companies are currently licensing a vaccine against H5N1, the virus most experts suspect could spark a pandemic and they include Novartis, Glaxo, Denka Seiken, Baxter, CSL and Sanofi Pasteur.

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