Global perspective Human stories

Indonesia to resume supplying UN health agency with bird flu virus samples

Indonesia to resume supplying UN health agency with bird flu virus samples

Indonesia has agreed to resume supplying the United Nations health agency with viruses from its bird flu outbreak, a vital tool in tracking possible mutations into a deadly human pandemic and producing vaccines, while the agency will seek to ensure equitable distribution and availability in developing countries of any such vaccines.

To this end, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and the Indonesian Ministry of Health have jointly decided to convene a meeting of selected countries in the Asia and Pacific region to identify mechanisms for equitable access to influenza vaccine and production. Indonesia has suffered more human bird flu fatalities, 63 out of 81 cases, than any other country.

“Indonesia’s leadership alerted the international community to the needs of developing countries to benefit from sharing virus samples, including access to quality pandemic vaccines at affordable prices,” WHO said in a statement on a meeting on Friday between the agency’s Acting Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases David Heymann and Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari.

Mr. Heymann said WHO fully supported both Indonesia’s short-term discussions with vaccine production companies to meet its vaccine needs and its long-term goal to develop its local vaccine production capacity through technology transfer.

“The Minister agrees that the responsible, free and rapid sharing of influenza viruses with WHO, including [the current virus] H5N1, is necessary for global public health security and will resume sharing viruses for this purpose,” the statement said.

“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,” it added.

Just last week, WHO reported “encouraging progress” in producing a vaccine against human bird flu, which in a worst case scenario could cause a deadly pandemic killing millions, but warned that the world still lacked the manufacturing capacity to meet potential global demand.

To counter this, WHO last year launched the Global pandemic influenza action plan to increase vaccine supply, a $10-billion effort over a decade. One of its aims is to transfer technology to developing countries so they can set up their own vaccine production units.

There have so far been 274 confirmed human cases worldwide, 167 of them fatal, the vast majority in South-East Asia. UN health officials have been on constant alert to detect any mutation that could make the disease more easily transmissible in humans. Nearly all human cases so far have been traced to contact with infected birds.

The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920 is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide.

More than 200 million birds have died from either the virus or preventive culling in the current outbreak.