Alarm as Govt Thumbs Nose at West over Bird Flu

menkes-health.jpgJAKARTA ~ With nearly half the world’s human bird flu deaths, concern is building over Indonesia’s refusal to share virus samples and its health minister’s increasingly strident denunciations of global “conspiracies.”
The government stopped sharing the samples with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in December 2006 on fears pharmaceutical companies would use them to make vaccines that are too expensive for poor countries.
The initial move by Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari earned international plaudits for taking on an unfair global system, but with WHO negotiations at an impasse, Supari’s increasing belligerence is raising alarm.
The minister has broadened her critique of an “unfair, neocolonialist” global health system, raising the possibility earlier this year the United States was using the virus to develop biological weapons in her book It’s Time for the World to Change: Divine Hands Behind Avian Influenza.
Supari told a rapturous crowd at a book discussion last week that rich nations were creating “new viruses” and sending them to developing nations in order create markets for drug companies to sell vaccines.
“Indonesia sends a virus to the WHO but it suddenly it ends up with the US government. Then the US government turns the virus into dollars and we don’t know what kind of research,” Supari said.
“Then the virus is turned into vaccines (that are sent to) Indonesia and Indonesia has to buy them and if they don’t buy them, it turns and turns again, and in the end developed countries make new viruses which are then sent to developing countries,” she said.
“The conspiracy between superpower nations and global organizations isn’t a theory, isn’t rhetoric, but it’s something I’ve experienced myself.”
Bird flu scientists abroad and in Indonesia have raised concerns that while Supari seeks to reshape the global order, time is being wasted in understanding a virus that could potentially kill millions if it mutates into a form transmissible between humans.
The government announced in August that 112 people had died from the virus, out of more than 240 worldwide since late 2003. Only a handful of samples and genetic sequences have been shared with the WHO and researchers.
The Health Ministry also earlier this year stopped publicly announcing bird flu deaths, only releasing information weeks or months after victims have died.
“I’m a bit suspicious what she’s doing is more politics and not in fact for the global health system,” said Ngurah Mahardika, a virologist from Bali’s Udayana University.
“This will lessen the strength, the power of the preparedness of the global system … (withholding samples means) we don’t have any epidemiological and virological signal now of what the virus looks like,” Mahardika said.
“This is really increasing our pandemic risk (because) we don’t know about any signals of a pandemic.”
While Supari has insisted Indonesia and other developing countries can stand on their own in researching the virus, Indonesian scientists say they too have been shut out from access to flu samples.
“The minister of health is keeping the virus in the laboratories but they are giving no access to Indonesian scientists at the moment,” said Amin Subandrio, the head of the national bird flu committee’s expert panel.
Subandrio, who has supported Supari in trying to extract a change in WHO rules to allow developing nations to secure supply of and revenue from vaccines taken from their virus strains, said withholding samples was nonetheless risky.
He said Supari’s claim of a Western-led global conspiracy was not backed by evidence.
“I really cannot explain it 100 percent, but probably she received the wrong information from the wrong person,” he said.
But while scientists and global health authorities express worry, Supari continues to enjoy popularity at home.
Her book has entered into multiple print runs in Indonesian and English and plans have reportedly been made for a film adaptation. Mainstream academics have also rallied to her side.
“I believe she represents a kind of minister or politician who has a very clear political standing,” political scientist Bima Arya Sugiarto said.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has distanced himself from Supari’s more controversial comments but has made no sign of moving her from her post.
“In Indonesia we recognize that there are issues to be resolved in the world health system but certainly we don’t believe in conspiracy theories,” presidential spokesman Dino Patti Djalal said.

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