By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor
WASHINGTON, April 21 (Reuters) - Talks between Indonesia and the United States over the future of a U.S. naval medical lab have become entangled in an international dispute over how to share crucial bird flu samples, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said on Monday.
He said Indonesian health officials are refusing to share samples of H5N1 avian influenza virus with the rest of the world. Meanwhile, negotiations over the future of the lab were also being held up.
"There is very little question that our lack of progress of getting that laboratory MOU (memorandum of understanding) renewed is connected to this," Leavitt told reporters.
Indonesian officials have said they only want to ensure equal access to any vaccine that are made against bird flu but Leavitt said they were also seeking payments.
The lab, the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 2 or NAMRU-2 for short, was central to Indonesia's early efforts to track H5N1. It was one of the few labs globally capable of the genetic analysis needed to identify H5N1 at the beginning of the epidemic, which started in 2003.
The agreement between the United States and Indonesia allowing NAMRU-2 to operate in Jakarta expired two years ago and has not been renewed.
"If there is anyone in the world who is advantaged by having the best scientific minds in the world, having access to this, it's Indonesia," Leavitt said.
Bird flu is still mostly affecting poultry across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. It only occasionally jumps to humans and has killed 240 out of the 381 infected since 2003, the World Health Organization says.
Indonesia has been especially affected by human H5N1 infections, with 132 reported cases and 107 deaths.
Experts fear the virus will mutate enough to pass easily from one human being to another. If it did, it could cause a pandemic that could kill tens of millions of people globally.
WHO said surveillance is key and asks 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.
Bayu Krisnamurthi, head of a national commission dealing with avian flu, said in March that Indonesia would only send virus samples on a case-by-case basis until a new virus-sharing mechanism currently being drawn up by the WHO took effect.
Talks hosted by WHO last November in Geneva failed to reach an agreement on a new virus-sharing system.
Leavitt, just back in Washington from a trip to Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam, said he met with Indonesian health minister Siti Fadillah Supari but they failed to agree.
"Minister Supari recently issued orders to prohibit Indonesian institutions from providing tissue samples to NAMRU-2," Leavitt wrote in his blog.
"Her action is obviously linked to her global initiative to seek specific benefits for sharing samples."
Leavitt foresaw little immediate progress.
"The minister's main point is that what she wants should not be considered 'royalties' or 'compensation'," Leavitt said. "What she says she wants is for the contributing countries to be eligible for some share of the value commercial companies create out of the influenza samples they provide."
(Editing by Will Dunham and Alan Elsner)