GENEVA Health negotiators from rich and poor countries failed on Saturday to clinch a full deal on virus sharing to produce vaccines, but expressed satisfaction that they had closed gaps on some tough political issues.
The H1N1 influenza outbreak which has spread around the world from Mexico and the United States, leading the World Health Organisation to declare a flu pandemic is imminent, has given added urgency to the work of the intergovernmental meeting, set up two years ago by the WHO.
The meeting agreed late on Saturday after a good-humored two-day session to forward a framework agreement on sharing influenza viruses and on access to vaccine benefits -- including its gaps to next week's World Health Assembly (WHA) at the WHO.
The assembly can then decide how to work further on the agreement, either during its meeting -- truncated because of the swine flu outbreak -- or later.
Jane Halton, the top official in Australia's Health and Aging Department, who chaired the meeting, told delegates they had achieved a significant amount of work.
"Yes, we acknowledge here that there are matters we have not resolved, and yes, they are difficult, but I do think a good body of material has been produced," she said.
The meeting was set up in 2007 amid a scare about H5N1 influenza, or bird flu, which is often fatal to humans, as part of the WHO's efforts to prepare for a pandemic.
The WHO wanted to ensure that virus samples would be circulated to laboratories and drug firms around the world so that they could produce a vaccine against the disease.
Poor countries argued they should have access to the resulting vaccines, especially if the samples came from the developing world. But rich countries led by the United States wanted pharmaceuticals companies to be able to claim the vaccines as intellectual property and earn royalties on them.
In 2006 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lodged a patent application for a new flu vaccine, and filed it with the World Intellectual Property Organisation in 2007.
The new vaccine incorporated genes from an H5N1 strain isolated from an Indonesian victim of bird flu in 2005.
But in 2007 Indonesia refused to share H5N1 virus samples without guarantees that any vaccines derived from them would be made available to poorer countries at an affordable price.
The main sticking point remains the wording of a standard agreement on transferring material, and some intellectual property questions. Developing countries wanted a comprehensive material transfer agreement, while rich countries were against any agreement but eventually settled for a simple one.
Abdulsalami Nasidi, a senior Nigerian health ministry official, told reporters the meeting had cleared up many unresolved issues. Delegates virtually agreed to free biological material moving through the WHO network from intellectual property rules, he said.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan has already implemented some things agreed in the meeting's two years, on traceability of material and benefit-sharing, Halton told reporters.
"The reality is the system can and will happen and in fact the work that's been done in a number of these areas has been adopted," she said.
GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis, Baxter International and other drug makers are awaiting WHO guidance about whether to start mass-producing vaccines to fight H1N1, which may force them to cut production of seasonal flu shots.