Published in The Hindu on June 23, 2007
Member states of the World Health Organisation have recently agreed to find a way to resolve the stand-off with Indonesia on the issue of bird flu sample sharing mechanism. Indonesia, the worst affected country with 79 human deaths so far from this virus, the latest victim being a girl who died last month, had stopped sending its samples to the WHO since early this year in the absence of any guarantee of access during a pandemic to vaccines developed using its samples. Even as efforts towards a fair and equitable sharing of benefits in return for samples have just begun, the Director General of the WHO, in a strongly worded statement, has stressed the need for continued sharing of samples with it. This is where the developing countries that share their samples face a problem. While the WHO wants Indonesia, which remains a fertile ground for H5N1 outbreaks and where most of the human infections and deaths have occurred since the first outbreak in 2003, and other southeast Asian countries to share their samples for studying the evolution of the virus and developing a vaccine, a benefit-sharing mechanism will take time. Though it sent just three samples last month after a gap of five months to the WHO collaborating laboratory in Japan, Indonesia continues to stand by its earlier decision that its samples should be used solely for research and not shared with pharmaceutical companies.
Though it had earlier stated that a decision to send further samples will depend on the “progress” made by the world body to resolve the issue of access to vaccines, it remains unclear if Indonesia will share more samples now. It will indeed be unfortunate if Indonesia decides not to share its samples, as the influenza virus, unlike other common viruses, has a capability to mutate at a remarkable speed. Frequent outbreaks and human infections provide ideal conditions for the H5N1 virus to mutate to a form that is easily transmittable between humans. With 15 of the infected having died since it stopped sharing its samples in January, there is an overwhelming urgency to study all its samples. While the need to find a quick and fair solution cannot be overemphasised, the WHO is itself to blame for its skewed benefits-sharing policy that gives a short shrift to the interests of countries that provided the biological samples. If any delay in developing a vaccine for use during a pandemic can be disastrous, the plight of developing countries denied access to vaccines developed using their samples hardest hit during a pandemic can be worse. How dangerously close the world had come to losing the battle against H5N1 if a pandemic were to strike is a reminder of the danger that lurks in today’s global village of the interests of the poor being subordinated to the commercial interests of pharmaceutical companies.