April 24, 2008 / 11:24 AM / 9 years ago

Indonesia, U.S. wrangle over future of naval lab

By Olivia Rondonuwu

JAKARTA, April 24 (Reuters) - An agreement to secure the future of a U.S. naval medical lab in Indonesia is being held up by disputes over diplomatic immunity for American staff as well as sharing of virus samples, a U.S. official said on Thursday.

The U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 2, or NAMRU-2 for short, has been key to efforts to track bird flu in Indonesia, the country with the most human deaths from the H5N1 virus.

But a memorandum of understanding allowing the lab to operate in Jakarta expired two years ago and has not been renewed, appearing to become ensnared in a wider dispute by Indonesian health officials over sharing samples of H5N1 with the rest of the world.

"There's a section in the MoU ... that's not agreed yet," deputy U.S. ambassador for Indonesia John Heffern told a news conference. He declined to elaborate, but denied that it was related to payments for samples.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, who recently visited Indonesia, had said on Monday that Jakarta officials were seeking payments.

Heffern said the U.S. government also wanted diplomatic immunity for 19 Americans out of the roughly 170-staff at the lab, while Indonesia has only offered immunity to two staff.

Harry Purwanto, who was director for North and Central America at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry until this week, said disagreements also included the duration of the deal, whether the lab could receive sponsorship from pharmaceutical firms, transfer of technology and Indonesian access to classified research.

"It's absolutely not about the money," Purwanto said.

Indonesia said last month it would not fully share bird flu virus samples with the World Health Organisation until what it believes is a fairer new global mechanism is in place.

The WHO has said surveillance is key and has asked affected countries to share samples of the virus regularly. These shared samples can also be used to make experimental vaccines.

But Indonesia fears pharmaceutical company may use samples of Indonesian virus to make a highly profitable vaccine that might not even be available to Indonesians.

As well as Indonesia, NAMRU has four other labs in the world in Peru, Kenya, Thailand and Egypt. (Editing by Ed Davies)

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