In the last week Indonesia agreed to provide the WHO with samples from the latest human cases of bird flu caused by the H5N1 viral strain. This move ends a stand-off between the Indonesian government and the WHO which has been going on since early 2007.
Indonesia, the country so-far hardest hit by H5N1 with 105 deaths to date, refused to submit further clinical samples for international vaccine and anti-flu drug research until it received assurances from richer countries and pharma companies that poor countries would be able to gain access to affordable vaccines and drugs developed using their samples. Currently, poorer countries are required to submit bird flu samples to the WHO, which then makes them available to pharmaceutical companies for use in vaccine production. But most of the therapeutics that result from these initiative subsequently remain out of financial reach for the country that first provided the samples.
Indonesia is viewed as a pandemic potential linchpin because the country is home to millions of backyard chickens and ducks and has poor medical and infection control facilities. Scientists view the cooperation of the country as vital in detecting whether the virus has mutated to become more infectious to humans; without samples, however, that cannot happen leading some to accuse the Indonesians of "putting the world at risk".
Thankfully, the Indonesian government have now agreed to resume the supply of bird flu isolates by sending 12 samples to the WHO in Atlanta, but "only for academic or non-commercial purposes". According to health minister Siti Fadilah Supari, "this is just for risk assessment. If they want to develop them into a seed virus they must notify us. If they make them into a vaccine our rights over (the vaccine) will be recognized."