WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Indonesia's decision to limit access to samples of bird flu virus is understandable and should force other governments and health experts to come up with a fairer system for sharing raw materials for vaccines, a leading medical journal said on Thursday.
The Lancet medical journal defended Indonesia's approach and said the World Health Organization must find a way to help poorer countries benefit more from medical research done by rich companies.
"Indonesia fears that vaccines produced from their viruses via the WHO system will not be affordable to them," the Lancet editorial reads.
Last week Indonesia declared it would only share its H5N1 bird flu virus samples with parties who agreed not to use them for commercial reasons, saying it was unfair for foreign drug firms to use the samples, design vaccines, patent them and sell the product back to the country.
It signed a preliminary agreement with a unit of pharmaceutical firm Baxter International Inc. to provide technology to help develop a vaccine.
"Their concerns are forcing the world to address this inequity problem. The fairest way forward would be for WHO to seek an international agreement that would ensure that developing countries have equal access to a pandemic vaccine, at an affordable price," the Lancet editorial read.
The H5N1 avian flu virus has infected 273 people and killed 166 of them since 2003. Indonesia has had more deaths -- 63 -- than any other country.
The fear is that the virus could mutate into a form that people could catch easily from one another. That could spark a pandemic that could kill millions, even if the fatality rate goes down.
Scientists have been examining samples of the virus to track its constant mutations. They have also been using these viral samples to make practice vaccines.
"To protect the global population, 6.2 billion doses of pandemic vaccine will be needed, but under current manufacturing capacity the world can only produce 500 million doses," the Lancet noted.
"And, in a pandemic, it is industrialized countries that will have access to available vaccines, whereas developing countries -- where a pandemic is likely to emerge -- will be left wanting," it added.
"In this context, Indonesia's move last week to try and secure an affordable vaccine supply for its population is understandable," it said.
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