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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Indonesia's refusal to share bird flu virus samples with foreign laboratories risks undermining the WHO's global influenza protection system, a WHO official and Australia's leading laboratory both warned on Thursday.
Drug manufacturer CSL announced last month it had developed a bird flu vaccine using Indonesian samples, which may have contributed to Jakarta's decision to no longer share H5N1 samples to protect its intellectual property rights.
CSL, the world top plasma products maker, said Indonesia's action would slow the development of bird flu vaccines and warned if other nations followed suit and withheld other seasonal flu samples, it would hinder the development of all vaccines.
"This action of Indonesia undermines the excellent system that the WHO has had in place for 40 years, whereby they sample flu strains and ... distribute these strains to manufacturers," said CSL's Director of Public Affairs Dr Rachel David.
"It has effectively protected the world's population against catastrophic flu epidemics for half a century," David told Reuters in an interview.
"If that is undermined by actions like this, regardless of what is motivating them, we will all suffer, all countries, because our access to effective flu vaccines will be slowed down," she said.
Jakarta argues it has an intellectual property right to the country's flu strain and to designate who develops a vaccine and profits from it. It says it is willing to share samples with those who agree they will not use them for commercial
But the World Health Organisation (WHO) said withholding of virus samples would weaken the its influenza programme.
"Having the best matched vaccine for currently circulating or potentially circulating viruses is the cornerstone of the WHO influenza surveillance programme," said Ian Barr, deputy director of laboratories at WHO's influenza centre in Melbourne.
WHO said Indonesia's action may make it harder for it to access a vaccine to combat a future mutated virus.
"If some new variant arises in the next year or 2 or 3 access might be difficult or have some restraints put on it and make vaccine development for any company very difficult," said Barr.
"It may affect Indonesia itself in getting a vaccine."
Bird flu remains largely an animal disease, but can kill people who come into close contact with infected birds. Bird flu has killed more than 160 people over the past four years, with Indonesia suffering highest toll, 63.
CSL's bird flu vaccine is the first to be registered in the Southern Hemisphere and the firm has said it would be able to vaccinate Australia's 20 million population within six months.
CSL rejected Indonesia's claim of intellectual property rights, saying a virus did not have territorial origins and was constantly mutating.
The H5N1 virus has spread into the Middle East, Africa and Europe since it reemerged in Asia in 2003 and outbreaks have now been detected in birds in around 50 countries.
"To put a country's name in front of a strain...happens to relate to where it was first isolated, it doesn't mean the strain remains in that location or originated in that location," said CSL's David.
"This is something they are raising to demonstrate their legitimate anxiety of not having a manufacturing capacity and therefore a pandemic vaccine immediately available in Indonesia."
The Australian biopharmaceutical firm said Indonesia could approach it and the Australian government for access to the CSL-developed vaccine, but had not made contact.
Concerns by Indonesia that it would be unable to afford a bird flu vaccine developed offshore were legitimate said WHO.
"WHO tries to get manufacturers to work with developing countries and to subsidise vaccines for developing countries," said Barr.
"There is this perception there is a lot of money to be made in this field, but generally vaccines are not the pot of gold."
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