Govt Lifts Ban on WHO Bird Flu Samples

JAKARTA ~ The government has agreed to lift its ban on sharing bird flu samples with the World Health Organisation (WHO) after reaching an agreement in a long-running row over poor countries’ access to vaccines.

Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari said Indonesia would start sending samples “immediately” to WHO laboratories after a deal was reached at international talks here.

“We are going to send the virus samples immediately,” she said on Tuesday.

The agreement came after two days of WHO talks involving several countries and organizations at which the world body agreed to develop a new mechanism on sample-sharing, the minister said.

“This is now more fair and transparent. The WHO will improve the mechanism,” she said.

The government announced in February that it had stopped sending samples to the WHO over concerns they would be used to develop costly vaccines beyond poorer countries’ budgets.

It asked for a legal guarantee that samples sent to international WHO reference laboratories for tests – a process said to be key in fighting human flu – would not be exploited for profit by drugs firms.

The minister said under the new mechanism, drugs firms would have to negotiate with the country producing the sample.

A senior WHO official said the body would now bar pharmaceutical firms from accessing the samples. All financial arrangements would be negotiated between individual firms and countries, he said.

“The WHO will only send the virus to collaborating centers for study and keep the virus from industry,” said David Heymann, assistant director general of communicable diseases.

“The WHO will not get involved in financial arrangements. That will be agreed between the country and the company.”

The deal will be finalized in June, but the health minister said she trusted the WHO not to share samples with industry until then.

The analysis of human bird flu samples by WHO reference laboratories around the world is said to be key in detecting the emergence of a possible pandemic strain of human flu.

Last month the government entered into a cooperation agreement with US company Baxter International to jointly develop a human bird flu vaccine, partly to try to ensure it benefits from any commercial treatment for the deadly virus.

Indonesia is the country worst hit by bird flu with 66 deaths confirmed from the disease.

Another two people – a 22-year-old student and a teenage boy – died after testing positive for bird flu, and further tests are being carried out to confirm the cause of death, officials said on Tuesday.

Most human cases have occurred after contact with sick birds. Indonesia has banned the popular practice of keeping chickens in backyards in the capital, Jakarta, in a bid to curb more human cases.

The WHO says the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu has infected 281 people and killed 169 of them, mostly in Southeast Asia.

Scientists worry the H5N1 strain could mutate into a form easily spread among humans, leading to a global pandemic with the potential to kill millions.

The fear stems from the lessons of past influenza pandemics. One in 1918, just after the end of World War I, killed 20 million people worldwide.

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