Info Service on Health Issues (February 07/08)
Indonesia to share bird-flu samples only if there is new system
reluctance to provide flu samples to the WHO stands unless and until
there is a new global mechanism for virus sharing that is favourable
to developing countries.
following story is reproduced with the permission of South-North Development
Monitor (SUNS) #6195, 21 February 2007.
Health: Indonesia to share bird-flu samples only if there is new
By Martin Khor, Penang, 20 February 2007
The Indonesian Health Minister,
Siti Fadilah Supari, has maintained that Indonesia will continue withholding
its bird flu virus samples from foreign laboratories until there is
a new global mechanism for virus sharing that has better terms for developing
She conveyed this message last Friday (16 February) to Indonesian media
after a meeting held with officials of the World Health Organisation.
The Indonesian daily, The Jakarta Post, quoted the Minister as saying:
"Indonesia will insist on a material transfer agreement before
sending the Indonesian strain of bird flu virus to foreign laboratories
to prevent them from being used for commercial purposes.
"We agree to send the virus to the WHO with new conditions or mechanisms
approved by both parties as well as by other developing countries. Until
then, we won't share the samples."
Siti also remarked that the WHO had often been in favour of capital
owners. "The organization sometimes forgets the good of the people
in general and we want to change that," she said.
The Jakarta Post report added that Indonesia and several developing
countries from the Asia Pacific region will meet in March to discuss
a more equitable mechanism for virus sharing and access to vaccine production.
The Health Minister met senior World Health Organization officials,
including acting assistant director general for communicable diseases
David Heyman, acting director for the Global Influenza Program, Keiji
Fukuda, and WHO representative to Indonesia George Peterson.
The comments of the Minister, after her meeting with the WHO officials,
seem to have a different shade of meaning than what she was purported
to have said in a WHO press release of 16 February.
According to the WHO release: "The Minister agrees that the responsible,
free and rapid sharing of influenza viruses with WHO, including H5N1,
is necessary for global public health security and will resume sharing
viruses for this purpose.
"WHO will continue discussions and work with the Ministry of Health
and other countries to assess and develop potential mechanisms, including
Material Transfer Agreements, that could promote equitable distribution
and availability of pandemic influenza vaccines developed and produced
from these viruses."
The Jakarta Post report implies that Indonesia will resume sharing the
bird flu virus only after a new and fair global mechanism for ensuring
that developing countries obtain equitable access to vaccines is in
Indonesia and several other Asian developing countries have been unhappy
with the present system under which WHO member states are obliged to
share virus samples with the WHO and its collaborating research centres,
but there is no regulation over the commercial use and patenting of
When new vaccines or anti-viral drugs are produced, they are usually
priced high, and the developing countries, including those that donated
the virus samples, are unable to afford them. Health officials of several
countries have been demanding that a more equitable system of access
to vaccines for the human version of bird flu and other diseases be
Earlier this month, Indonesia signed an agreement with the US drug company
Baxter Healthcare to develop a human bird flu vaccine. Indonesia would
provide H5N1 virus samples while the company would provide it with technology
and expertise in vaccine production. As part of the agreement, the WHO
and other organizations would have access to the samples only if they
agreed not to distribute them to commercial companies.
The Jakarta Post has also published an interview with Triono Soendoro,
Director General of Indonesia's National Institute of Health Research
and Development, one of the main officials managing the issue, that
throws more light on the events leading to Indonesia's controversial
The report, entitled "WHO must follow rules, like everyone else",
revealed that Indonesia stopped sharing its bird flu samples with the
WHO after CSL, an Australian drugmaker, developed and tried to market
a vaccine using the Indonesian strain of the virus without the Health
Soendoro said that several Indonesian laws regulate the sharing of virus
specimens. Each specimen that Indonesia sends abroad should be accompanied
by a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) which is internationally recognized.
"The agreement stipulates that the permission of the sending party
is required if the sample is to be developed for commercial purposes,"
he said. "It also states that there should be a benefit-sharing
scheme if it is to be used commercially.
"However, when bird flu broke out in 2005, health officials and
scientists around the world were in a panic. Because of the chaos in
the global health world, the MTA was scrapped in order to make sample
"Since then, every sample transfer was done based only on the trust
that nobody would violate the MTA. If we had insisted on using the MTA,
many countries might have accused us of being overly bureaucratic in
the midst of a global health scare."
Asked why Indonesia felt that it had been treated unfairly since there
is no MTA between Indonesia and the WHO, Soendoro said: "We screamed
when we heard that an international company wanted to sell us the vaccine,
which was developed from our strain without our permission.
"Although there was no MTA at the time, they should have been more
ethical. Just because it's the WHO does not mean that they can violate
the rules. There are only four places where WHO Collaborating Centres
are associated: London, Tokyo, Atlanta and Melbourne. All were selected
by the organization to do diagnoses or research under the WHO."
Soendoro also remarked that the WHO Collaborating Centres "act
like Santa Claus. They are generous in sharing data. It has been a tradition
over the decades that a country with a seasonal flu gives out virus
strains to whoever asks for it. In Indonesia, we are concerned about
bird flu because it has a higher risk of fatality, with an average of
eight deaths in 10 cases."
He said that Indonesia had decided to cooperate with Baxter as it was
"the only company that contacted us and was ready to follow all
of our conditions. They even agreed to sign the MTA agreement."
On the consequences of stopping the sharing of the bird flu samples,
Soendoro said many foreign media had criticized Indonesia because of
its decision, "but health officials and the media in Asia have
supported us for our effort to ensure fairness. We have no commercial
interests; we want the whole world to benefit."
He added that the bird flu virus strain in Indonesia matters because
80% of bird flu deaths have been caused by the distinct Indonesian virus.
Producing a vaccine from the local strain would protect other countries
from the virus.
The health official concluded: "Based on scientific predictions,
it's just a matter of time before the next pandemic occurs. If every
pharmaceutical company was forced to produce the vaccine, they would
still only be able to produce about 500 million doses. This means that
only 250 million people in the world would receive the vaccine, and
Indonesia would get nothing."
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