Indonesia Shares Bird Flu Virus Samples

Tuesday, March 27th 2007, 9:28 pm
By: News On 6

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ Indonesia will resume sending bird flu virus specimens to the World Health Organization immediately, the health minister said Tuesday, ending a four-month standoff health officials feared could potentially put the entire world at risk.

The WHO, in turn, promised not to share virus samples with vaccine companies without permission from countries that provide the specimens. Indonesia had refused to share its samples without a guarantee they would not be used to develop vaccines unaffordable to developing countries.

``We will start sending bird flu samples to the World Health Organization immediately,'' Health Minister Siti Fadiliah Supari told reporters after two days of talks with top WHO officials. ``We trust WHO will not violate our trust, because this is related to the WHO's credibility.''

For weeks the health minister had been demanding that the global body change its 50-year-old virus sharing system, in which it collects regular flu samples from all over the world and makes them available to vaccine makers and others.

International scientists had argued she was making it impossible to monitor the Indonesian virus to see if it was mutating into a more dangerous form. Indonesia has been the hardest hit country by bird flu, with 68 human deaths.

Nyoman Kandun, a senior health ministry official, announced the deaths of the latest victims Tuesday, identifying them as a 22-year-old woman from the southern Sumatra city of Palembang and a 40-year-old man from East Java's capital of Surabaya.

WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said viruses would be monitored as they always have, but companies interested in using samples for vaccine development would have to get permission from the governments that provided them.

``Industrialized countries negotiate regularly for vaccines, and they've got stockpiles and vaccines,'' said Dr. David Heymann, WHO's top flu official. ``There is no reason developing countries should not do the same thing.''

Indonesia's decision to withhold the virus had received support from some other developing nations, many of which sent health chiefs to Jakarta for the gathering that wraps up Wednesday.

Heymann earlier suggested several ways to ensure a fairer distribution of vaccines, including creating stockpiles of vaccines for use in poor countries and transferring technology so they can produce their own.

To ensure it has access to a bird flu vaccine, Indonesia has reached a tentative agreement with U.S. drug manufacturer Baxter Healthcare Corp. Under the deal, Indonesia would provide samples of the virus in exchange for Baxter's expertise in vaccine production. Indonesia would stockpile the vaccine for use in case of a major human outbreak.

Meanwhile, a woman and two children in Egypt were reported infected with bird flu Tuesday, bringing to 30 the number of Egyptians diagnosed with the disease since last year, officials said.

Health officials said the three people had contracted the virus from domestic birds, the most common means of human infection worldwide.

Bird flu has killed about 170 people since it began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in 2003, according to WHO. It remains hard for people to catch, and most human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds. But experts fear it could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, potentially sparking a pandemic that could kill millions.

Currently, only up to about 500 million doses of flu vaccine can be produced annually _ far short of what would be needed in a pandemic.