JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia will not share bird flu virus samples with foreign laboratories until the World Health Organisation has rules in place to ensure they are not used commercially, a senior Indonesian health official said on Friday.
Jakarta has been criticised for moving to stop sharing the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of the virus. It argues that the prevailing system allows drug firms to use these samples to make vaccines that developing countries often cannot afford.
Triono Soendoro, director general of the National Institute of Health Research and Development, told Reuters the WHO must help Indonesia draft a "material transfer agreement" specifying the virus samples would be used only for diagnostic purposes and not for commercial gain.
"Until it is resolved, sending specimens to WHO collaborating centres will not be resumed," Soendoro said in an interview.
The requirement for having an agreement for transferring virus samples and limited use of the samples for diagnostic purpose is also implicit under Indonesia's 1992 health law, he added.
"We have violated our own law by sending the specimens without proper documents," Soendoro said.
Experts say sharing H5N1 samples is crucial as it allows specialists to study the makeup of the virus and trace its evolution and the geographical spread of any particular strain. Samples are also used to prepare vaccines.
Indonesia on Wednesday said it would only share its H5N1 samples with those agreeing not to use them commercially. The announcement came as it signed a preliminary agreement with a unit of pharmaceutical firm Baxter International Inc.
Under the pact the health ministry's research and development institute will supply the U.S. firm specimens of H5N1; Baxter will provide technology to help develop a vaccine.
Indonesia would have the right to produce and market the bird flu vaccine domestically. It is negotiating to export it to a number of countries.
Bird flu has killed more than 160 people globally over the past four years, with Indonesia suffering the highest toll, 63.
It largely remains an animal disease, but the big concern is that it could mutate into a disease that easily passes from human-to-human triggering a global pandemic.
Asked if Indonesia would share the virus strain and allow other drugmakers to produce a vaccine for the rest of the world if a pandemic started in Indonesia, Soendoro said it would.
"We are not standing in the way. There's nothing exclusive with Baxter. If they want it, they just have to talk us.
"If necessary, we donate them to the poorest nations. As long as they produce the vaccine for their interest. What we don't want when the pandemic strikes, (is for) the vaccine being traded (commercially)," he added.
Soendoro said Indonesia would start a clinical trial of a human bird flu vaccine using its H5N1 strain between March and April this year. It plans to produce two million dosages of bird flu vaccine, if the vaccine-making process is successful.
Getting an affordable bird flu vaccine is of huge concern for developing countries as many life-saving medicines from HIV antiretrovirals to heart disease drugs are often inaccessible due to restrictive patent laws.
(Additional reporting by Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong)
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