GENEVA (Reuters) - Indonesia on Tuesday called for countries who share bird flu virus samples to have full control of their use and access to vaccines developed from them, but the United States ruled out any automatic reward for sharing.
Indonesia, the nation worst hit by bird flu with 91 human deaths, has held back most of its virus samples and demanded guarantees that poor countries get access to affordable pandemic vaccines derived from them.
Speaking at the start of a four-day meeting hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO), Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari said developing countries were being denied their “sovereign rights” over bird flu virus samples sent to the WHO, a United Nations agency.
“We must have equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of viruses through a fair, transparent and equitable mechanism. It is the moral thing to do,” she said.
Jakarta has shared just two specimens this year, both from Indonesian women who died in the tourist resort of Bali in August, according to WHO’s top bird flu official David Heymann.
Sharing samples is deemed vital to see if viruses have mutated, become drug resistant or grown more transmissible.
John Lange, U.S. special representative for avian and pandemic influenza, said “there should not be a one-to-one relationship between sharing of a particular sample and accruing a specific benefit”.
“Countries that do their duty and share information and samples should not expect to receive something concrete each and every time they share,” he said.
The H5N1 virus has killed 206 of 335 people infected since 2003, according to the WHO.
Experts fear the constantly mutating virus could change into a form easily transmitted from person to person and sweep the world in months. A pandemic could kill millions of people, shut down businesses and overwhelm health care systems, they say.
The WHO agreed in May to revamp its 50-year-old system for sharing influenza virus samples and is seeking accord on new rules for sharing them with researchers and drug companies.
Indonesia on Tuesday submitted a proposal calling for a new system which should provide “concrete and specific” benefits for developing countries, especially those who share specimens.
Any commercial use of the virus would require the prior consent of the country providing it — which Jakarta said would retain the intellectual property rights and have access to global vaccine stockpiles at an affordable price.
Sixteen companies are licensing a vaccine against H5N1, the virus most experts suspect could spark a pandemic.
Lange said countries must look beyond the issue of access to pandemic vaccine and have contingency plans for school closings.
“While important, such vaccines will not even be available until five or six months into a pandemic, and by that time the entire world is likely to have experienced the first wave of the pandemic,” the U.S. envoy said in a speech.
The “transparent and rapid functioning” of WHO’s network for sharing must be preserved, though he saw “room for improvement”.
Research and development of new drugs and vaccines was “very risky, time-consuming and extremely expensive” and it was critical to protect patents to ensure their continued development. “We cannot accept any approaches that would undermine intellectual property rights,” Lange said.
Editing by Caroline Drees