Bird Flu: Indonesia vs. WHO

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/26/2007 04:04:00 AM
Indonesia has decided to hold out on sending bird flu samples to the World Health Organization (WHO). Although the WHO has called on countries to voluntarily share viruses to keep up with newer strains of the bird flu, developing countries like Indonesia are wary of cooperating for they believe that they do not receive much in return. The first issue is that WHO data is not readily shared with developing countries:
Several years ago the agency set up a secure database to allow scientists in its international laboratory network to compare H5N1 avian flu viruses across countries. The aim was to get affected countries to share on an accelerated basis. Typically this type of information isn't shared before scientific papers on the viruses in question have been published; that can take months or years.

But as concern about the threat of the H5N1 flu virus has increased, the closed database has taken on the image of an "old boys' club" for flu. Pressure has been mounting on the WHO to open up the database to the wider scientific community. It reached a peak last month when 70 senior scientists, including Nobel Laureates, signed a letter supporting the creation of an open-access flu database that would be outside the WHO's control.

The second issue concerns the affordability of drug subsequently developed based on these samples:
Indonesia - the nation hardest hit by bird flu, with 66 human deaths - has dug in its heels, refusing to bow to international pressure from scientists desperate to check whether the virus is mutating into a more dangerous form.

"This is the inevitable consequence of trying to privatize knowledge, and of a poor country saying the system is unfair," said Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel economics laureate who has written about patents and globalization. "There are so few examples where a poor country has some bargaining chips on its side, and that's what makes this case so interesting."

Indonesia is not opposed to monitoring in general, but Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari has stressed that she is against giving vaccine makers free access to the country's viruses under WHO's 50-year-old system of virus sharing. She fears any bird flu vaccine created from the viruses would be too expensive for developing nations.

Rich and poor countries were set to meet with WHO on Monday in Jakarta to try to hammer out a compromise. But the standoff has raised a much bigger issue: equal access to drugs and technologies.

"The price is too high for the developing countries to have access" to patented drugs, said Dr. Suwit Wilbulpolprasert, senior adviser on disease control at the Thai Ministry of Health, who agrees with Indonesia's stance.

The result of the upcoming meetings mentioned in the above article to resolve this issue should prove interesting. Pharmaceutical pricing in the developing world has been a longstanding trade issue. While some countries pursue "compulsory licensing" of drugs in emergency situations like Thailand recently did with its AIDS epidemic, this instance is notable in that Indonesia has decided to withhold samples altogether if they are to be used commercially. Stay tuned.

March 27 Update: Indonesia has reached a deal wherein drug companies will have to negotiate commercial rights with (developing) countries providing virus samples. Before, these companies could avail of such samples pro bono from the WHO, but things are set to change:

A senior WHO official said the body would now bar pharmaceutical firms from accessing the samples. All financial arrangements would be negotiated between individual firms and countries, he said.

"The WHO will only send the virus to collaborating centres for study and keep the virus from industry," said David Heymann, assistant director general of communicable diseases.

"The WHO will not get involved in financial arrangements. That will be agreed between the country and the company."

The deal will be finalised in June, but the Indonesian health minister said she trusted the WHO not to share samples with industry until then.