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Indonesia, WHO Fail to Resolve Flap Over Bird-Flu Samples
posted by admin on 02/03/07

Indonesia said it received a guarantee from the World Health Organization that the country's bird-flu virus wouldn't be used to develop an expensive, commercial vaccine, but the global body insisted Thursday no such deal had been reached.

The two sides have been locked in a standoff since early last month, when Jakarta said it was withholding samples of its bird-flu virus from WHO over concerns that developing nations wouldn't be able to afford vaccines in the event of a global pandemic.

See complete coverage of efforts to contain avian flu, including an interactive graphic on the science of the virus and a look back at major flu epidemics.

Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari told reporters that WHO Director General Margaret Chan promised by telephone that Indonesia's strain of the H5N1 virus wouldn't be used for commercial purposes.

A letter of guarantee was expected to arrive within the next few days, Ms. Supari said, after which "Indonesia will resume sending as soon as possible." She added: "A guarantee signed by the director general is strong enough." But WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said no such deal had been cemented. "This letter is still under development," he said. "Her [Supari's] characterization of a guarantee is not correct."

Several countries are developing vaccines to protect against H5N1, the strain of bird flu responsible for 166 human deaths world-wide, more than one-third of them in Indonesia. The virus remains essentially an animal disease, but experts fear it may mutate into a form easily spreadable between humans.

Asian and Pacific regional health leaders meet in Jakarta later this month to work out a way to ensure that large drug companies don't make vaccines that will be too expensive for their people.

"We want to change the system so that Third World nations are not always the victims of developed countries," Ms. Supari said. "It is for the sake of humanity, not just for Indonesia."

Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country, is seen as a potential hotspot for a global pandemic because of its high density of people and chickens. The government's decision to withhold the vaccine was a major departure from the WHO's virus-sharing system, where bird-flu samples are freely passed throughout the global community for public health purposes, including vaccine development.

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