Indonesia defends decision to stop sharing bird flu specimens with WHO

Wednesday, February 7th 2007, 6:01 am
By: News On 6

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ Indonesia defended its decision to stop sharing bird flu samples with the World Health Organization, saying Wednesday it did not want the agency passing them on to drug companies to develop vaccines the cash-strapped country could not afford.

Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari said, however, that WHO and other international organizations were welcome to the samples so long as they signed an agreement that they would not be used for commercial purposes. It was unclear whether this offer could be a solution to the standoff.

She made the remarks after signing a memorandum of understanding with U.S. drug manufacturer Baxter Healthcare Corp. to develop a human bird flu vaccine in Indonesia, the country worst hit by the virus.

Kim C. Bush, president of Baxter's vaccine unit, said the company was not involved in the Indonesian move to cut off WHO, which threatens long standing international cooperation in producing vaccines and could lead to other developing countries with similar concerns following suit.

``We believe it is strictly a business matter with the Indonesian government and WHO and other countries,'' he told reporters. ``We will not be involved in that process or have we been in the past.''

Under the agreement, Indonesia will provide strains of the H5N1 virus circulating in the nation and Baxter will offer technical expertise to produce the vaccine, said Supari.

The vaccine _ which is a long way from commercial production _ will be made in Indonesia for mostly local use, Supari said.

On Tuesday, WHO chief of communicable diseases Dr. David Heymann confirmed that Indonesia had stopped sharing bird flu samples with it because the agency makes them available to vaccine makers _ something has been doing with regular flu virus strains for 50 years.

He said he understood Indonesia's concerns, but there was no ``easy solution'' to the problem.

WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said ``this development is a concern to WHO, there's no doubt about that,'' adding the full impact on the agency's work was still not clear.

Supari on Wednesday defended Indonesia's stance.

``The specimens we send to WHO ... are then used by vaccine makers who them sell to us (at a profit),'' she told reporters. ``I say this is unfair; we have the virus, we are getting sick and then they take the virus from WHO, 'with WHO's permission' they say, and make it themselves.''

Several countries are developing vaccines to protect against H5N1, the strain of bird flu responsible for 163 human deaths around the world, around one third of them in Indonesia.

The virus remains essentially an animal disease, but experts fear the virus may mutate into a form easily spreadable between humans and trigger a global pandemic, possibly killing millions.

The vaccines currently under production may offer some protection against any pandemic strain, but there is no guarantee. Experts say it could take six months before they could be adjusted to provide full protection if there is a pandemic.