February 5, 2007 10:06 pm

Indonesia withholds vital bird flu data

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Indonesia, the country worst hit by the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, has stopped sharing human genetic samples of the highly pathogenic illness with foreign laboratories, raising fears it could slow international efforts to prepare for a pandemic.

Officials say Indonesia stopped providing samples internationally last month, hindering efforts to confirm whether the virus killing its citizens is H5N1 and limiting production of vaccines to help prevent its spread.

Dr Triono Soendoro, director-general of Indonesia’s National Institute of Health Research and Development, said the step to withhold samples was taken because the government wanted to keep control of the intellectual property rights of the deadly strain of the virus.

He declined to give further details but said “all will be revealed” on Wednesday, when Indonesian officials are due to announce they are collaborating with Baxter International, the world’s biggest maker of blood-disease products, on a vaccine.

The move comes as Britain battles its worst outbreak of H5N1 bird flu, which yesterday led to several countries banning UK poultry imports, including Japan and South Korea. Defra, the UK’s food, agriculture and rural affairs ministry, said it expected the restrictions to last until the UK had achieved “disease-free
status”.

The UK exports 270,000 tonnes of poultry meat annually, worth about £300m, according to the British Poultry Council.

Analysts say Indonesia hopes to offer exclusive rights to the strain to one company and cut a deal on cheaper products once they are developed.

One official warned that withholding samples could be counterproductive, since there was no guarantee the final human pandemic strain would derive from the current virus killing people in Indonesia. One bird flu expert in Jakarta said the move would not matter if Indonesia was able to do a full sequencing of its strain to detect mutations. “But given the country doesn’t yet have the capability, this is now a very internationally worrying decision,” the expert said. “If you reduce your chances of detecting whether a pandemic is about to occur, then a pandemic becomes more likely.”

Bird flu has killed 63 out of the 81 people infected in Indonesia since testing started in 2005, according to the World Health Organisation.

Baxter confirmed last night that it expected to conclude a “framework for future collaboration” with Indonesia this week, which could involve intellectual property issues, but stressed that it would continue to comply with World Health Organisation rules on the sharing of virus samples.

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