Indonesia defends its bird flu stance against US criticism

By: By ROBIN McDOWELL
By: By ROBIN McDOWELL

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) -- Indonesia does not want money for its samples of a deadly bird flu virus, a health official said Wednesday after the U.S. criticized his country for refusing to share the samples with the international community.

Instead, Indonesia wants governments and pharmaceutical companies to come up with a mechanism that will ensure future pandemic vaccines are accessible to developing nations, said Widjaja Lukito, an adviser to Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari.

That could include creating a multilateral trust that would enable price tiering or bulk purchasing of lifesaving vaccines, Lukito said.

The adviser was responding to comments made by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, who accused Indonesia of withholding virus samples from the World Health Organization since early 2007 because it wanted royalties or other monetary benefits.

"This is not a line we want to cross," Leavitt told The Associated Press at the end of a quick stopover in Indonesia last week. "Because it means the next unique virus we come across, wherever it is, we'll end up with people who say there is a price to pay for the virus."

He repeated the allegation on his blog, saying Supari's bottom line appeared to be "share samples, get paid."

Indonesia - seen as a potential hotspot for a pandemic because of its high density of chickens and humans - denied that was the case. Lukito said he thought there may have been poor communication on both sides.

"There are many types of benefit programs that can be discussed," he said, noting that the U.S. and Indonesia agreed during Leavitt's visit to set up an expert panel on the issue. "One could be a kind of revolving fund developed by pharmaceutical companies."

Another, Lukito said, could be to create a multilateral trust - funded by contributions from governments, influenza vaccine manufacturers and individuals - to make sure vaccines are produced and distributed in a fair and equitable manner.

Suggestions at a WHO meeting in Geneva late last year included tiered pricing of vaccines, bulk purchasing and other procurement mechanisms that take into consideration how much governments could afford for vaccines, he said.

Under the existing virus-sharing system, poor countries are obliged to send samples to WHO, which then makes them available to a handful of pharmaceutical companies to use in vaccine production. Wealthy nations have stockpiled tons of bird flu vaccines, while Indonesia and other developing countries have limited supplies.

U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Cameron R. Hume, meanwhile, appeared to downplay claims by Leavitt that Indonesia was trying to put a price tag on its H5N1 virus samples.

"Frankly, I think Indonesia's basic concern is that you have a very high mortality rate from avian influenza here," with nearly 80 percent of all humans infected dying, he said. "They are concerned about trying to be sure ... Indonesians don't face this totally unacceptable risk of death."

Indonesia has been hardest hit by bird flu since it began plaguing Asian poultry stocks in late 2003, with its 107 human deaths accounting for nearly half the 240 recorded fatalities worldwide. The virus remains hard for people to catch, but scientists worry it could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, potentially sparking a pandemic that could kill millions.

Many international health experts said Supari had a point when she bucked WHO's decades-old virus sharing system. But by withholding bird flu samples, health experts note, she is impeding the global body's ability to monitor whether the virus is morphing into a more dangerous form.

Leavitt vowed in his blog on April 15 to give Indonesia another two months to work toward a solution.

"The cost of Indonesia's refusal to share influenza samples is incrementally small. However, the damage done by accepting Indonesia's view is profound, and simply unacceptable," Leavitt wrote.

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On the Net:

Leavitt blog: http://secretarysblog.hhs.gov/

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