Indonesia, UN reach accord on bird flu virus samples and vaccine access

Indonesia, UN reach accord on bird flu virus samples and vaccine access

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Indonesia will immediately resume supplying the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) 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 access for developing countries to any such commercially developed vaccines.

“We have struck a balance between the need to continue the sharing of influenza viruses for risk assessment and for vaccine development, and the need to help ensure that developing countries benefit from sharing without compromising global public health security,” WHO Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases David Heymann said after a two-day meeting in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

Indonesia, which has suffered more human bird flu fatalities, 63 out of 81 cases, than any other country, had been concerned that developing countries have supplied H5N1 virus to WHO Collaborating Centres for analysis and preparation for vaccine production, but that the resulting vaccines produced by commercial companies are likely to be unavailable to developing countries such as Indonesia.

Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari called this system “unfair” and Dr. Heymann said Indonesia had raised “an issue that is very important.”

Other attendees at the meeting included experts from some 20 countries which have had animal or human outbreaks, senior scientists and potential funders, including representatives from the Asian Development Bank and the Gates Foundation.

The meeting endorsed WHO activities to increase safe and effective pandemic vaccine access, including mobilizing financial support to develop a vaccine stockpile with guidelines for equitable distribution, strengthening national laboratory capacity, and linking vaccine manufacturers in developed and developing countries to speed the transfer of vaccine manufacturing technology.

“WHO’s best practices for influenza virus sharing were developed for seasonal influenza vaccine, which only has a market in the developed countries and a few of the developing countries,” Dr. Heymann said. “H5N1 vaccines are a totally different issue. We will now modify our best practices to ensure that they are transparent to the developing countries which are providing samples, and which have requested to share in the benefits resulting from those viruses.”

There have so far been 284 confirmed human cases worldwide, 169 of them fatal, the vast majority in South-East Asia. UN 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, which also originated from birds, 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.