By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr., NYT
Indonesia said on 27 March that it would resume sending samples of avian flu virus to the World Health Organization (WHO) for research purposes, on the understanding that they would not be shared with commercial vaccine-makers.
As a result, WHO will be able to continue tracking the evolution of the virus there and designing vaccines against the latest mutant strains.
Samples from Indonesia are important because it has had more flu deaths than any other country and several variants of the H5N1 strain of bird flu circulate in the country, which has failed to quell its poultry epidemic.
Indonesia and 17 other poor countries met with WHO officials in Jakarta for two days this week, seeking assurances that they would get a vaccine if a lethal flu epidemic broke out.
They got no such guarantee, but the agency agreed not to pass their samples on to commercial manufacturers without consulting the health minister of the country that provided the sample. That gives the countries leverage as they seek their own deals with vaccine-makers, as Indonesia did earlier this year.
"If countries want to negotiate for vaccine with companies, that's perfectly within their domain," said Dr. David L. Heymann, the assistant director general for communicable diseases who led the WHO team at the summit meeting. "Industrialized countries negotiate regularly for vaccine."
In January, frustrated that an Indonesian strain of the virus had been used to make a vaccine that most Indonesians would not be able to afford, the country stopped cooperating with the WHO and made a deal to send samples to Baxter Healthcare, an American company, in return for a low-cost vaccine and help in building vaccine factories in Indonesia.
Some other poor countries applauded the move and debated whether to follow suit, a move that could have set back global vaccine research.
Indonesia's health minister, Siti Fadilah Supari, told reporters in Jakarta that she would resume sending samples to the WHO “immediately”.
Exactly how much can be done with the samples remains to be worked out, the WHO said. The samples are used to create vaccine "seed strains" that can be spliced to other viruses to make vaccines, refine diagnostic tests and sequence the H5N1 genome. They are also used to see how infectious and lethal each strain is in animal models and which anti-viral drugs the strain is susceptible to. All that information can be useful to drug and vaccine companies.
"We will trust WHO will not violate our trust, because this is related to the WHO's credibility," Supari said, according to news agency reports.
Heymann emphasized that the agency cannot guarantee vaccine supplies, saying, "WHO is not involved in financial negotiations, either in selling viruses or buying vaccine."
In the past, he has suggested that wealthy countries or foundations set aside vaccine for poor countries or help them build their own vaccine plants.