JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia has restricted sharing bird flu strain samples overseas to ensure its own people benefit from any vaccine and to stop foreign parties "dancing over the corpses of others", the health minister told Reuters on Thursday.
In a controversial move, Jakarta last week declared it would only share its H5N1 bird flu virus samples with parties who agreed not to use them for commercial reasons, insisting it was unfair for foreign drug firms to use the samples, design vaccines, patent them and sell the product back to the country.
Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari said in an interview that the reason why rich countries and pharmaceutical firms want access to the Indonesian strain is because it "has a better cross-protection and can be used against H5N1 strains from other countries".
"The ones who are egotistical here are the ones with capital. They are dancing over the corpses of others," she said during the interview at her office in South Jakarta.
Some health and aid agencies have condemned Indonesia for refusing to share samples, although others have defended the stance because developing countries often struggle to get access to life-saving drugs due to patent laws and high costs.
Supari said Indonesia had sent H5N1 samples to the World Health Organisation for diagnosis and was shocked when a commercial entity was given access to them without Jakarta's knowledge.
"WHO should have had walls to protect us as victims. It turned out to be that's not the case and this is how it is in the world. Developing countries are always on the losing side like what happened to the AIDS and heart disease drugs," she said.
"REACTION TO INJUSTICE"
She insisted Jakarta was not trying to stop a virus being developed that could produce a vaccine saving the world from a potential bird flu pandemic for itself as long as parties agreed to Indonesian laws on material transfer.
"They have to respect our laws. Why do (WHO-sanctioned labs) refuse to sign? If they don't sign, we won't give the virus. This is a reaction to injustice," said the 56-year-old minister, who was wearing a pink headscarf.
Sharing of virus samples is crucial as it allows experts to study their make-up and map the evolution and geographical spread of any particular strain. Samples are also used to make vaccines.
Although H5N1 bird flu remains essentially a bird disease, it has killed 166 people since 2003, mostly in Asia with Indonesia having the highest deathtoll of 64 fatalities.
The big concern is that it could mutate into a disease that easily passes from human-to-human triggering a global pandemic.
Indonesia last week 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.
Defending Indonesia's actions, Supari used an example of the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu, an antiviral medicine that can be used to treat patients with bird flu, complaining the country's access to the drug was limited.
"We had to line up from the back when clearly we were the ones who had the patients. That's unfair. My reaction is to remind the world to act fairly."
"I want to save mankind but I want fairness. If things are fair, we won't have diseases in the world. This is my way of protesting," the cardiologist-turned-minister added.
(Additional reporting by Telly Nathalia)
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