JAKARTA A vaccine to combat human bird flu could be ready as early as July, Indonesia said on Friday, adding it was prepared to use it immediately despite calls from the WHO to build up a stockpile first. Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari said the World Health Organization's advice was not realistic in the case of Indonesia, which has the highest number of bird flu deaths.
"WHO urged us to stockpile first. That may work for developed countries, where human cases are yet to appear. But we already have human cases, we are in the middle of a war and we should not be stockpiling anymore," she said.
WHO officials declined immediately to comment.
The minister said clinical trials should wrap up soon and the vaccine, which is being jointly developed with a unit of U.S. firm Baxter International Inc., should be ready for use as soon as July.
The Indonesian government and Baxter agreed in February to develop a vaccine. Under the agreement, Indonesia has been supplying virus specimens, while Baxter is providing the technology to develop the vaccine.
"If a cluster like Karo appears, where human-to-human transmission is not immediately clear, Indonesia has the right to go ahead with vaccinations to prevent the spread of the virus," Supari said, referring to an outbreak in Sumatra last year.
The largest known cluster of human bird flu cases worldwide occurred in May 2006 in the Karo district of North Sumatra province, where as many as seven people in an extended family died. The cluster triggered fears the virus had mutated into a form that could spread easily between people.
While bird flu is mainly an animal disease, experts fear it could mutate into a form that can be spread easily among people, triggering a possible pandemic which could kill millions. The disease has globally killed 191 since 2003.
There have been 100 confirmed human cases and 80 deaths in Indonesia, which has complained that developing nations would not be able to afford vaccines being developed against the disease.
In April, WHO announced plans to build a global stockpile of up to 60 million vaccine doses to be used by developing nations to counter any bird flu pandemic.
Early treatment with anti-viral drug Tamiflu, developed by Swiss firm Roche, is the most effective way to treat bird flu patients, experts say.
Supari also disputed research suggesting the Indonesian strain was less susceptible to being treated by Tamiflu.
An Australian expert released research indicating the Indonesian strain of H5N1 was 20 to 30 times less sensitive to Tamiflu, pointing to a higher level of resistance to the drug, according to media reports.
"The Indonesian virus strain is sensitive to Tamiflu," the minister said.