April 22, 2008

Indonesia Noncompliant with Avian Flu Research

A lack of cooperation by Indonesian health officials to share samples of H5N1 avian influenza virus with other researchers across the globe is causing confusion among some U.S. officials about the future of a U.S. naval medical lab.

"There is very little question that our lack of progress of getting that laboratory MOU (memorandum of understanding) renewed is connected to this," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said on Monday.

U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 2, or NAMRU-2, was one of very few labs that were capable to analyze genetic material to identify H5N1 when the epidemic began in 2003.

Indonesia used NAMRU-2 to track the virus, however the agreement between the United States and Indonesia allowing NAMRU-2 to operate in Jakarta expired two years ago and has not been renewed.

"If there is anyone in the world who is advantaged by having the best scientific minds in the world, having access to this, it's Indonesia," Leavitt said.

Indonesian officials claimed they simply want access to any vaccine that is created in part by the lab, but Leavitt said they had petitioned for payments as well.

In Indonesia, 132 humans have been infected with H5N1 virus, 107 have died.

In Asia, the Middle East, Africa and parts of Europe, flocks of birds have been infected, with some instances of human infection. Since 2003, 381 people have been infected with H5N1, and 240 have died.

The looming fear is that the virus will mutate and begin to infect more humans, thus causing a global pandemic.

The World Health Organization recommends that samples should be shared regularly between countries so that researchers can continue to explore the possibility of creating vaccines.

However, Indonesia believes that pharmaceutical companies will claim any profits earned from a potential vaccine without making it available to Indonesians.

Bayu Krisnamurthi, head of a national commission dealing with avian flu, said in March that Indonesia would only send virus samples on a case-by-case basis until a new virus-sharing mechanism currently being drawn up by the WHO took effect.

Leavitt said that he failed to reach an agreement with Indonesian health minister Siti Fadillah Supari in a recent meeting.

"Minister Supari recently issued orders to prohibit Indonesian institutions from providing tissue samples to NAMRU-2," Leavitt wrote in his blog.

"Her action is obviously linked to her global initiative to seek specific benefits for sharing samples."

"The minister's main point is that what she wants should not be considered 'royalties' or 'compensation'," Leavitt said. "What she says she wants is for the contributing countries to be eligible for some share of the value commercial companies create out of the influenza samples they provide."


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Naval Medical Research Unit No. 2

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services