Saturday, May 19, 2007

WHO mediates bird flu vaccine argument

Tuesday, March 27, 2007
The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Hoping to end a row triggered by Indonesia's decision to stop sharing bird flu virus samples, the World Health Organization is holding a two-day meeting to reach an agreement that ensures poor nations will get vaccines in the event of a pandemic.

Indonesia, the nation hardest hit by bird flu with 66 human deaths, has put the issue on the front burner by saying it will only share samples of the H5N1 virus if it has a guarantee they will not be used to make vaccines that will profit pharmaceutical companies or another country.

"The existing process in which the WHO and its affiliates share the virus isolates with private companies without collaboration with the countries from which virus samples originate is unacceptable for developing countries.

"This system places developing countries at a potential disadvantage in terms of price, access and supply. The rules of this system must be changed," Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari said while opening the meeting at the Sultan Hotel in Jakarta on Monday.

Siti said the current regulations require countries to send virus samples to the WHO, but it has no corresponding regulation that requires collaboration with the originating country on the commercialization of resulting vaccines.

"Although it may be painful to address, it is a real problem that we must correct," she said.

The meeting was attended by government officials and experts from 18 countries, including Australia, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Canada, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, the Philippines, Turkey and the USA.

David Heymann, assistant director general of the WHO, said the meeting had been convened by the WHO to discuss issues relating to the sharing of influenza viruses and the resulting benefits, including pandemic vaccines.

"It is critical that all developing countries have access to pandemic vaccines. At the same time, it is critical that the world share its novel influenza viruses for risk assessment, such as genetic sequencing and the classification of novel influenza viruses and for any sign of mutation that might be correlated with current knowledge," said Heymann.

Heymann said that one solution might be "stockpiles of pandemic vaccines in which industry would set aside a percentage of pandemic vaccines for developing country needs, with a guarantee of purchase from WHO."

However, the maximum capacity of production is between 400 million and 500 million doses per year, which is only enough to satisfy the demand in industrialized countries.

Sixteen manufacturers from 10 countries are developing prototype pandemic influenza vaccines against H5N1.

The WHO said bird flu has killed at least 169 people since it began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in 2003. (02)

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