By Olivia Rondonuwu and Ed Davies
JAKARTA, May 7 (Reuters) - Indonesia is trying to defend the interests of poorer nations by refusing to share bird flu samples with the West and is locked in a cultural misunderstanding over the issue, Jakarta’s health minister said on Wednesday.
Siti Fadillah Supari also said in an interview that a U.S. naval medical lab based in Indonesia for research into tropical diseases was barely benefiting its host country and was not being transparent in its operations.
"Poor countries sent the virus to the WHO (World Health Organisation) on behalf of humanity. But it was commercialised by the WHO," Supari said in her offices in central Jakarta.
Officials in Indonesia, the country with the highest number of human bird flu victims, have said they want to ensure equal access to any vaccines that are made against bird flu.
But U.S. Health Secretary Michael Leavitt said last month after visiting Jakarta that Indonesia also wanted payments.
Supari likened Indonesia’s gripe over virus sharing to someone giving a ripe banana to someone so it could be fried to raise its value and then not giving any benefit to the person providing the banana.
"Well that’s our culture, but Western culture cannot understand. Western people are used to buying the thing and after that don’t feel any attachment," said Supari, who is known for being outspoken on the bird flu issue.
She said that virus samples were not being sent to the WHO until a new fairer global mechanism for sharing was in place that ensured that samples sent from countries benefited them.
"If the virus is from Indonesia they (WHO) must share with Indonesia, if the virus came from Vietnam they must share with Vietnam, and that also goes for Thailand."
International health experts say it is vital to have access to samples of the constantly mutating H5N1 virus, which they fear could change into a form easily transmissible among humans and sweep the world in months, killing millions of people.
FUTURE OF U.S. NAVAL LAB
The future of the U.S. naval lab in Jakarta would be discussed by the health, defence and foreign ministries, as well as the intelligence agency, Supari said.
The minister said the U.S. lab had been receiving virus samples from across Indonesia, but that had been stopped.
"We don’t know what happened to the viruses that we sent," she said, adding the U.S. lab had also received samples from Indonesian soldiers deployed in Papua.
A memorandum of understanding allowing the lab to operate in Jakarta expired two years ago and a new one is being discussed but sticking points include the number of U.S. staff that can have diplomatic immunity and an agreement over virus transfers.
Supari said that the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 2, or NAMRU-2 for short, had provided Indonesia benefits for example during a dengue outbreak but not by as much as expected.
"For example, up to now malaria is still a problem, until now tuberculosis is still a problem and we don’t have tools to diagnose....and we don’t have vaccine or special treatment," she said, adding that NAMRU had also not provided research results.
U.S. officials have dismissed accusations that the lab with about 170 staff it not transparent and said the facility, which has been in Indonesia since 1970 and is one of five in the world, is based in the Southeast Asian country to further studies into tropical diseases that benefits both nations.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)