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By Fitri Wulandari
JAKARTA, Feb 16 Indonesia will resume sharing bird flu samples with the World Health Organisation (WHO), but under a new mechanism aimed at ensuring developing nations get access to vaccines, the health minister and the WHO said on Friday.
In a controversial move, Jakarta last week declared it would only share its H5N1 bird flu virus samples with parties who agreed not to use them for commercial reasons and had stopped sharing them with the WHO.
"We agree to responsible sharing practices and we're going to do it soon," Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari told reporters.
She said that a proposal would be drawn up that would be fair and guarantee access for any products resulting from the sharing of samples to other developing countries.
WHO spokesman David Heymann told reporters that there would be a meeting of health ministers from the Asia Pacific region and select countries in March to look into the new mechanism.
"The government of Indonesia has agreed to resume free sharing of viruses of H5N1 with WHO for global public health security to ensure the world is secure in knowing what viruses are circulating that could cause a pandemic," Heymann said after a meeting with the Indonesian health minister.
"At the same time an issue that requires further work is how to make sure that Indonesia and other developing countries have access to the benefit that arises from free sharing of viruses." "At the same time, we're working with industries in Indonesia to develop local vaccine product capacity through technology transfer."
Indonesia had previously said it had restricted sharing samples with foreign laboratories because it was unfair for foreign drug firms to use the samples, design vaccines, patent them and sell the product back to the country.
The issue has sparked debate in the medical community with some health and aid agencies condemning Indonesia for refusing to share samples, while others defended the stance because developing countries often struggle to get access to life-saving drugs due to patent laws and high costs.
"The minister agrees that the responsible, free, rapid sharing of influenza viruses with WHO including H5N1 is necessary for global public health, security and will resume sharing viruses for this purpose," an Indonesian statement said.
Sharing of virus samples is crucial as it allows experts to study their make-up and map the evolution and geographical spread of any particular strain. Samples are also used to make vaccines.
Although H5N1 bird flu remains essentially a bird disease, it has killed 166 people since 2003, mostly in Asia with Indonesia having the highest deathtoll of 64 fatalities.
The big concern is that it could mutate into a disease that easily passes from human-to-human triggering a global pandemic.
Indonesia last week signed a preliminary agreement with a unit of pharmaceutical firm Baxter International Inc.
Under the pact the health ministry's research and development institute will supply the U.S. firm specimens of H5N1; Baxter will provide technology to help develop a vaccine.