Indonesia defends move to block virus sample sharing

HONG KONG, July 16 (Reuters) - Indonesian officials say they have refused to share bird flu virus samples with the World Health Organisation because scientists and laboratories repeatedly violated U.N. guidelines on sample sharing.

In an article published in the latest issue of The Annals, Academy of Medicine, Singapore, Indonesian scientists and officials, including Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari, said the current system of sample sharing was unfair and perpetuated the "inequities of the global system".

The officials called for "efforts to create a mechanism for virus access and benefit sharing that is accepted by all nations".

They said the last straw came when Indonesian officials learnt at the end of 2006 that an Australian company was developing a vaccine against the H5N1 bird flu virus using a strain of the virus from Indonesia.

The officials said it was a clear violation of World Health Organization (WHO) rules that a pharmaceutical company would even have access to viruses that were shared with WHO-affiliated laboratories.

WHO rules state there should be no distribution of viruses/specimens outside the network of WHO laboratories without permission from the originating country or laboratory.

Indonesia has long argued that such a system meant samples provided freely by developing states would be used by companies in rich countries to develop drugs that poorer nations could not afford.

"Countries that are hardest hit by a disease must also bear the burden of the cost for vaccine, therapeutics and other products, while the monetary and non-monetary benefits of these products go to the manufacturers that are mostly in the industrialised countries," the article said.

"If the world continues to operate in this way, the discrepancies will become wider and wider. The poor will become poorer and the rich become richer."

Indonesia reported its first human case of H5N1 infection in July 2005 and now leads the world with the highest number of cases and deaths from the disease, or 135 and 110, respectively.

Its reluctance to share its bird flu virus samples is of grave concern to the international scientific community, as it blocks efforts to study vital properties of the virus, such as whether it has become more transmissible among people, thereby possibly triggering a pandemic.

Such analyses were also necessary to check if the virus might have developed resistance to any drugs.

The WHO has hosted a few meetings after Jakarta decided to withhold its H5N1 samples in January 2007. So far, no meaningful solution has been reached. (Reporting by Tan Ee Lyn; Editing by David Fogarty)