JAKARTA, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Indonesia sent 12 bird flu virus samples to a World Health Organisation (WHO) laboratory this week after an assurance that Jakarta would have access to affordable vaccines, a health ministry official said on Friday.
Indonesia, the nation worst hit by bird flu with 105 deaths, had held back its virus samples since last August, saying it wanted guarantees from richer nations and drugmakers that poor countries would get access to affordable vaccines derived from their samples.
Talks hosted by the WHO last year in Geneva failed to reach an agreement on a new virus-sharing system. Indonesia had insisted on a "material transfer agreement" for each sample sent to foreign labs.
The agreement specifies the sample is used only for diagnostic purposes and not for commercial gain.
"We sent 12 bird flu samples on Wednesday. We hope that we can get easy and cheap access to the vaccine. Moreover, we are the worst-hit country," Lily Sulistyowati, the health ministry’s spokeswoman, told Reuters.
Sharing samples is crucial for scientists to track genetic changes in the H5N1 virus and develop vaccines should the virus mutate into a form that spreads easily from person to person.
A number of companies and national governments are developing bird flu vaccines.
The WHO says it has begun to disclose how and where samples it receives are used, in response to poor countries’ demands for more transparency.
The electronic tracking system is a step towards appeasing the concerns of Indonesia and other developing countries that the biological specimens they share with the WHO will be used to make affordable vaccines.
Having a "traceability mechanism" in place was a key demand raised at a WHO meeting in November.
Nyoman Kumara Rai, the WHO’s Indonesia-based senior adviser for communicable disease surveillance, said the U.N. body would continually upgrade its tracing system to better monitor the movement of virus samples.
"They are on the way to Atlanta. This is a very good development, we really appreciate it," Rai said, when asked whether the WHO had received the samples.
The samples have been sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Reporting by Mita Valina Liem; Editing by Sugita Katyal and David Fogarty)