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Indonesia says WHO Rules on Sharing Bird Flu Samples Must Change


The Indonesian government says World Health Organization rules on sharing bird flu samples with private companies are unacceptable and must change. Indonesia says poor countries must participate in the development of any potential vaccine for the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus. VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins in Jakarta has more.

Indonesia's health minister, Siti Fadilah Supari, has called for new mechanisms to be put in place to ensure developing nations can afford potential human vaccines against the bird flu virus.

She was speaking at a two-day meeting in Jakarta between the World Health Organization and health officials from more than a dozen countries. She says WHO's current virus sharing system is "unacceptable."

"The existing process in which WHO and its affiliates share virus [samples] with private companies without collaboration with the countries from which the virus samples originate is unacceptable for developing countries," she said. "The system leaves developing countries at potential disadvantage in terms of price, access, and supply. The rules of the system should be modified."

Earlier this year, Indonesia stopped sending bird flu samples to laboratories linked to the WHO over concerns the samples would be used to develop expensive vaccines by drug companies that poor countries could not afford.

Indonesia acted after an Australia-based drug company used an Indonesian strain of the virus to develop a vaccine without Indonesia's consent.

Jakarta says it wants a legal guarantee that bird flu samples sent to WHO laboratories for testing will not be exploited by drug companies for profit.

WHO Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases David Heymann said the Jakarta meeting aimed to address these concerns. But he cautioned the dispute must be settled or it could slow down development of a vaccine.

"It is critical that the world share its novel influenza viruses for risk assessment, genetic sequencing for classification of novel influenza viruses, and for looking for any sign of mutation that might be correlated with current knowledge, such as resistance to anti-viral drugs," he said.

According to the WHO, since the bird flu virus reappeared in 2003, 281 cases of the bird flu virus have infected humans in a dozen countries worldwide, resulting in 169 deaths. Most infections have occurred in Asia. Indonesia has the highest number of deaths at 63.

While the bird flu virus is not easy to catch, health officials fear that the virus may mutate to a form more easily spread between humans, which could cause a pandemic, killing millions globally.

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