JAKARTA, Indonesia – The World Health Organization might guarantee that poor nations get access to stockpiles of bird flu vaccines in the event of a pandemic, the top WHO flu official said Monday, hoping to end a row triggered by Indonesia's decision to stop sharing virus samples.
Indonesia -- the nation hardest hit by bird flu, with 66 human deaths -- is refusing to send samples of the H5N1 bird flu virus to WHO until it stops sharing them with commercial vaccine makers.
The cash-strapped country says the current system is unfair because it cannot afford to buy vaccines produced using its strains.
"The system places developing countries at potential disadvantages in terms of price, access and supply of vaccine," Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari said at a meeting of global health officials in Jakarta aimed at finding a solution to the standoff. "The rules of the system must be changed."
The country has said in the past it wants a legally binding agreement that the samples will not be used for commercial purposes, but Supari made no mention of that demand in her opening speech.
Indonesia's decision has received support from some other developing nations, but has alarmed international scientists desperate to check whether the virus is mutating into a more dangerous form.
"All nations have a responsibility to share data and virus samples," U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt said in an e-mailed statement that also offered US$10 million to WHO to help make sure poor countries have access to vaccines.
"Responding to a pandemic will demand the cooperation of the world community. No nation can go it alone," he said. "If a country is to protect its own people, it must work together with other nations to protect the people of the world."
Dr. David Heymann, WHO's top flu official, said one short-term solution might be "stockpiles of pandemic vaccine in which industry would set aside a percentage of pandemic vaccine for developing country needs, with a guarantee of purchase from WHO."
Later, WHO might help Indonesia and other poor countries develop vaccine production facilities themselves, he said.
He said Indonesia's demand that the world body not make virus strains available to commercial vaccine makers was not a solution and would hinder global cooperation in the fight against the virus.
Such a move would end 50 years of cooperation between the world body and vaccine makers.
In comments to reporters, Supari did not respond to the possible solution proposed by Heymann, but insisted that Indonesia would not send the samples outside the country if it meant that vaccine makers could access them.
"A collaborating center and vaccine factory could be developed here so there will be no need for the virus to be sent outside the country," she said. "Why not? We have the most virus and patients."
The meeting, attended by health officials from 18 countries, is to end Wednesday.
Indonesia's decision to stop cooperating with WHO has highlighted inequalities in global access to vaccines and drugs.
"Wealthy countries are always in a better position to be able to produce vaccines, to buy them and to distribute them," said Dr. James Campbell, a leading bird flu vaccine researcher at the University of Maryland.
Bird flu has killed at least 169 people since it began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in 2003, according to WHO. It remains hard for people to catch, and most human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds. But experts fear it could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, potentially sparking a pandemic that could kill millions.
Currently, only up to about 500 million doses of flu vaccine can be produced annually -- far short of what would be needed in a pandemic.
To ensure it has access to a bird flu vaccine, Indonesia has reached a tentative agreement with U.S. drug manufacturer Baxter Healthcare Corp. Under the deal, Indonesia would provide the virus in exchange for Baxter's expertise in vaccine production.