Indonesia to Trade Flu Virus for Vaccine
Friday, February 16, 2007; 1:05 PM
JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Indonesia agreed to resume sharing its bird flu virus with the World Health Organization Friday under condition that developing countries will have equal access to an affordable vaccine, officials from both sides said.
The country hardest-hit by bird flu is worried that large drug companies will use its H5N1 strain to make vaccines that will be too expensive for developing nations in the event of a global pandemic that could kill millions.
Jakarta drew criticism earlier this month when it said it would withhold samples of its bird flu virus from WHO unless an agreement was reached on commercial development of a vaccine.
"The (health) minister has assured the WHO they would not hold WHO hostage to the virus," David Heymann, a top WHO bird flu official, said after talks Friday in the Indonesian capital with Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari and other senior government officials about the vaccine row. "They will share the virus for global public health services."
They said after the meeting that selected countries in the Asia and Pacific region would meet in March in Jakarta to identify mechanisms that would help ensure equitable access to influenza vaccine and its production.
"Until then, Indonesia will not share it," Supari said after the meeting.
Several countries are developing vaccines to protect against H5N1, the strain of bird flu responsible for 167 human deaths worldwide, including an Egyptian woman who died Friday. More than one-third of the deaths have been in Indonesia.
The virus remains essentially an animal disease, but experts fear it may mutate into a form easily spread between humans.
Ian Gust, a vaccine expert at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who chaired the two-day WHO meeting in Geneva, said the first doses of a new vaccine could be available within three months after any mutation of H5N1 into a strain easily passed among humans.
He predicted that "the gap between what is currently possible and what is desirable in terms of protecting the entire planet will continue to be reduced over the next year or two."
Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country, is seen as a potential hotspot because of its high density of people and chickens.
The government's decision to withhold the vaccine was a major departure from the WHO's existing system, in which viruses are freely shared with the global community for public health purposes, including vaccine and antiviral development.
Heymann said Indonesia's leadership had alerted the international community to the needs of developing countries to benefit from sharing virus samples, including access to quality pandemic vaccine at affordable prices, "It's a very admirable accomplishment."
Supari, the health minister, said she felt it was important to take a stand.
"We tried to create a balance between developed and developing countries in facing catastrophe," she told reporters. "The WHO has been siding with capital owners, which sometimes forget the good of the people. We want to change that."
Indonesia was also criticized when it signed a memorandum of understanding last week with U.S. drug manufacturer Baxter Healthcare Corp. to develop a human bird flu vaccine. Under the agreement, Indonesia would provide H5N1 virus samples in exchange for Baxter's expertise in vaccine production.
"We believe the minister of health has done the right thing. She is in discussion with Baxter to see how she can make the vaccine available in Indonesia. That is what all countries do when they need vaccine. They negotiate deals with companies," Heymann said.
Associated Press writer Alexander G. Higgins contributed to this report from Geneva.