Saturday, February 10, 2007

Indonesia Announces It Will Not Share H5N1 Virus Samples "For Free"

It's interesting to see how this story is being reported around the world. The linked story below seems reasonably balanced, unlike some others that strictly follow the WHO's songsheet on the issue : that Indonesia should openly share all samples of H5N1 and other avian influenza strains.

Indonesia's position is reasonable enough. They claim that virus samples shared with researchers and pharmacuetical companies around the world could end being patented by one of the pharma giants, or a private research group, as a vaccine is developed, leaving Indonesia is the possible position of having to pay to create its own vaccines from an avian influenza virus that originated within the archipelago.

As unreasonable as some claim Indonesia is being, it is not a situation created by Indonesia, but by the restrictive patenting of everything from unique human DNA to rare viral strains by pharmaceutical companies.

A particularly interesting factoid from the article - Indonesia has a H5N1 virus that shows 70% mortality in infected humans, incredibly high for any virus, and "nobody knows why".

From the International Herald Tribune (excerpts) :

The strains of the H5N1 virus circulating in Indonesia are considered crucial to developing up-to-date vaccines and following mutations in the virus. (A World Health Organisation official), Dr. David Heymann, said the agency was "clearly concerned" about the development and was in talks with Indonesia.

Heymann, the agency's chief of communicable diseases, said he was not blaming the company involved, Baxter Healthcare of Deerfield, Illinois "But now that this has happened," he said, "we have to sit down and figure out how to rectify it."

...Indonesia's decision upsets the pattern for making seasonal flu vaccines — by choosing among hundreds of samples sent in voluntarily from all over the world — and could set a dangerous example for other countries. Indonesia and other poor countries feel slighted by the system — justifiably so, some experts say — because the samples they send in are used to produce vaccines that they often cannot afford.

"Their concern," Heymann said, "is that their strains have been used by several manufacturers to produce vaccines, and that Indonesia should get some compensation. From their point of view, it's understandable."

A spokeswoman for Indonesia's Health Ministry told Reuters Tuesday that the country "cannot share samples for free."

"There should be rules of the game for it," said the spokeswoman, Lily Sulistyowati. "Just imagine, they could research, use and patent the Indonesia strain."

The Financial Times reported the move by Indonesia Tuesday; the country has not released a flu sample since late last year.

Some leading flu experts said they believed that Indonesia was acting on its own, not understanding the ramifications.

"This is counterproductive — it will hurt Indonesia more than it hurts other countries," said Dr. Arnold Monto, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan. "The WHO should be their biggest friend. Indonesia has a virus with a 70 percent case fatality, and we don't know why. If they want to work with the best laboratories in the world, they should make sure that virus samples can get out."

Because flu mutates so rapidly, samples are normally gathered from all over the world. For seasonal flus, an expert committee meets each February to try to predict which three are the most likely to be a problem by October, when the Northern Hemisphere's flu season begins.

The strains are usually rendered harmless by laboratories that consult with the WHO, and the genes responsible for the ability of the virus's outer coat to invade cells are spliced to older, well-known strains. Then this "seed virus" is given free to private companies that produce millions of doses.

The arrangement was informal until the WHO started writing rules for it last fall. To assure countries like Indonesia a supply of vaccine, Heymann favors helping them get plants where they can produce it themselves at low cost.

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