GENEVA (Reuters) - Developing countries led by Indonesia demanded a fair deal on Tuesday for providing samples of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus that drug companies use to make vaccines.
A resolution, presented by 17 countries at the annual World Health Assembly, came as Indonesia said it had resumed sharing virus samples with the World Health Organization (WHO) after a five-month hiatus.
The United Nations agency, under growing pressure from countries hard-hit by the disease, is trying to come up with a new formula for sharing of samples and the resulting benefits.
Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari said the WHO’s 50-year-old sharing system was unfair to poor countries.
“There is an unfair mechanism in which avian flu virus samples are provided free by developing countries but drug companies patented this vaccine and are selling them at unaffordable cost for the developing countries,” Supari told the assembly.
Genetic sequencing had been used in published research, commercialization and patent requests without consent, she said. “Such practice violates the spirit in which virus is given.”
David Heymann, the top WHO bird flu official, said that sharing was essential to track the virus’s evolution worldwide.
He also acknowledged that some WHO collaborating centers had sought patents on “parts of the virus” they had obtained through the network, but gave no specifics.
“This network has been going on for 50 years and we hope we will have the support of all member states to continue functioning in a way which will ensure our collective public health security,” Heymann told a technical briefing.
Supari later told a news conference: “An equitable sharing mechanism is not about royalties, it is about a basic human right to health.”
Indonesia had recently sent several samples to the WHO which she said were “only for pandemic risk assessment and research and not for commercial use”. She also made clear that Jakarta had held back some virus samples pending a wider agreement.
“We hope we can have a resolution as soon as possible and then we can send all of our samples to the WHO collaborating centre,” she said.
The WHO confirmed that its collaborating centre in Japan had received three samples from Jakarta.
Indonesia in February signed a memorandum of understanding with a unit of U.S. company Baxter International Inc to develop a bird flu vaccine.
Supari said Indonesia would require drug companies wishing to develop a vaccine from its samples to seek its permission. Jakarta would seek guarantees on preferential pricing, “fair distribution” of vaccines worldwide and transfer of technology.
The virus has killed over 170 people, mainly in south-east Asia, since it re-emerged in 2003. Although it remains mainly an animal disease, scientists fear that if it mutates into a disease easily spread amongst people, it could kill millions.
At least three countries which have recorded human bird flu cases — Indonesia, Laos and Iraq — are among the 17 sponsors of the resolution which will be debated at the assembly which ends May 23. Supari said Vietnam and Cambodia also backed it.