Indonesia wants WHO agreement over samples

By Zakki Hakim JAKARTA, Indonesia, AP

Indonesia will not share bird flu samples with the World Health Organization without a legally binding agreement promising the virus won’t be used to develop an expensive commercial vaccine, the health minister said Tuesday.

Siti Fadilah Supari, digging her heels in following a weekslong standoff with the global body, said a letter of guarantee from WHO’s director general Margaret Chan late last month was not good enough.

“We will not share the virus before there is a Material Transfer Agreement,” she told reporters, adding that she hoped one would be drafted during a bird flu meeting in Jakarta in late March between Asia Pacific health leaders and WHO.

Several countries are developing vaccines to protect against H5N1, the bird flu virus strain blamed for 168 human deaths worldwide — more than a third of them in Indonesia.

The virus remains mainly an animal disease, but experts fear it may mutate into a form that easily spreads between humans, potentially killing millions.

Indonesia is worried that large drug companies will use its H5N1 strain, sent to WHO affiliated laboratories to confirm human infections, to make vaccines that will ultimately be unaffordable for developing nations.

International health experts say that is a real possibility and note that global capacity for bird flu vaccine production is currently up to 500 million doses — far short of what would be needed, and poor countries will likely be at the end of the line.

Chan told Supari in a Feb. 28 letter seen by The Associated Press that WHO would use Indonesia’s strain of the virus “for public health risk assessment purposes only.”

Until a formal agreement is reached, WHO will obtain authorization from Indonesia before sending any “H5N1 strain as a vaccine seed virus to a vaccine producer for production of influenza H5N1 vaccine,” the letter promised.

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, is seen as a potential hotspot for a global pandemic due to its high density of people and chickens.