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Indonesia and WHO Near Agreement on Sharing of Bird Flu Samples

Indonesian health officials say they are hopeful a new international agreement will be reached next week over the sharing of bird flu samples for vaccine research. Chad Bouchard reports from Jakarta, where Indonesia's 75th human death from bird flu has just been announced.

Indonesia and the World Health Organization have been arguing since February. The question: should Indonesia donate samples of its strain of the H5N1 bird flu virus for research by Western pharmaceutical firms?

Indonesian Health Ministry officials say wealthy countries are making huge profits from patents using Indonesia's samples, while Indonesia is unable to afford the vaccines for its own use.

The Indonesian strain of H5N1 has proved particularly virulent. In February, an Australian company used it to develop a commercial vaccine without consulting Jakarta.

Triyono Sundoro, head of research and development for Indonesia's Department of Health, says such acts violate international guidelines, which say a country must give its consent before its samples are used for patented vaccines.

He says companies should not be able to make large profits while people who need their medicines suffer for lack of funds.

"If you get a profit [of] hundreds, the question is: is that enough hundreds? 'No, no, we would like to have thousands.' But you are exploiting people by having thousands… So we are blamed for quote 'making those noises'. Because some companies already have the patents, but thousands of victims need medication that is affordable," Sundoro says.

Indonesia reached a sample-sharing agreement with the WHO in March, but has continued to withhold samples. It says it first wants formal guarantees from the international community that Indonesia will be able to afford any vaccines made from the samples.

Indonesian officials, speaking to reporters in Jakarta on Tuesday, said they hope such an agreement will be reached during a World Health Assembly in Geneva next week.

Nyoman Kumara Rai, the WHO's acting team leader for avian influenza, says the WHO is sympathetic to Indonesia's concerns.

"Many member countries also share Indonesia's concerns, and we are confident that ultimately we are able to find a solution that finally can lead to a more equitable and affordable access to pandemic influenza vaccine," Rai says.

On Tuesday, Indonesia confirmed its 75th death from the H5N1 virus, including 18 who have died this year. The country has the highest number of confirmed fatal cases in the world.

Most humans contract the virus from birds, but scientists are concerned the disease could mutate into a form that is easily transmitted from human to human, which could spark a global pandemic resulting in millions of deaths.