Jakarta: Indonesia does not intend to resume sharing bird flu samples with other countries until there is a global mechanism for virus sharing in place, the newly-appointed Health Minister said on Saturday.
Indonesia, which has suffered the most confirmed deaths from the H5N1 bird flu virus, has been holding out for guarantees from richer nations and drugmakers that poor countries get access to affordable vaccines derived from their samples.
But the move has drawn global concern, since experts say it is vital to have access to samples of the constantly mutating virus, which they fear could change into a form easily transmissible among humans and sweep the world in months, killing millions of people.
"It depends on the international treaty result regarding the standard material transfer agreement, I will closely monitor this," Health Minister Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih said.
The World Health Organisation`s more than 190 member states have been holding negotiations on virus sharing, but a sticking point has been how and when biological samples of viruses would be shared with the world`s pharmaceutical companies who need them to make vaccines, an issue known as "material transfer”.
Jakarta wants a material transfer agreement for each sample of the virus sent to foreign labs, specifying it will be used only for diagnostic purposes and not for commercial gain.
H5N1 bird flu has been circulating in Asia for years but it has hit Indonesia harder than any other country. Although it only rarely infects people, it has killed 262 out of 442 infected globally since 2003, according to the WHO website. At least 115 Indonesians have been killed by the virus.
The Health Minister also said there were no plans to reopen a US Naval laboratory operating in Indonesia but biomedical research with the United States would take place instead under a civilian-to-civilian program.
The US Naval Medical Research Unit No 2, or NAMRU-2 for short, was central to Indonesia`s early efforts to track H5N1. It was one of the few labs globally capable of the genetic analysis needed to identify H5N1 at the beginning of the epidemic.
The lab had been in Indonesia since 1970 and is one of five in the world, but its future became politicised after some Indonesian officials said its operations were not transparent.
US officials have previously denied there was a lack of transparency and said the lab benefited both countries.
Paul Belmont, a spokesman at the US embassy in Jakarta, said the new civilian facility -- the Indonesia-US Biomedical and Health Research Centre -- would be established under a memorandum of understanding between the United States and Indonesia`s previous health minister, Siti Fadilah Supari, signed last month.