Political squabbles hobble H5N1 research

Published 22 December 2008

Indonesia has had the most cases of human H5N1 flu since 2005; it refuses to share the virus samples with Western pharmaceutical companies unless these companies agree to share with Indonesia the profits from the vaccine these companies develop — and also guarantee Indonesia access to a vaccine in case of a pandemic

The story from Indonesia is not quite as bad as the sad story of the near-criminal — or, indeed, plainly criminal — behavior of Tabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa (a successor to Nelson Mandela, Mbeki was forced out of power three months ago by his own party): A new study by Harvard researchers estimated that the South African government would have prevented the premature deaths of 365,000 people earlier this decade if it had provided antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients and widely administered drugs to help prevent pregnant women from infecting their babies. The Harvard study concluded that the policies of preventing South Africans from having access to antiretroviral drugs grew out of President Mbeki’s denial of the well-established scientific consensus about the viral cause of AIDS and the essential role of antiretroviral drugs in treating it. Mbeki not only joined forces with the HIV “denialists” to prevent the use of antiretroviral drugs: He sent his government health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, to tours around the country to advocate the use of garlic, lemon juice, and beetroot as AIDS remedies (if you want to read more about this sorry story, see Celia Dugger’s detailed, and disturbing, New York Times account).

Back to Indonesia. We still do not know much about how the most virulent strain of bird flu is evolving. The reason: a meeting to persuade Indonesia — which has had the most cases of human H5N1 flu since 2005 — to share its virus samples ended in disagreement. New Scientist reports that the Indonesian samples are needed to develop vaccines and monitor genetic changes that indicate whether the virus is adapting to spread among people. Indonesia claims that sending samples helps foreigners but not the Indonesians themselves.

At the latest World Health Organization (WHO) meeting in Geneva last week, aimed at breaking the impasse, countries agreed in principle that virus samples, and the benefits that come with having them, should be shared. The main stumbling block is that pharmaceutical companies, mainly in rich countries, patent and sell vaccines and there is no legal framework for a contract that would share these profits with the countries that provided the samples, nor to guarantee these countries access to a vaccine in case of a pandemic.

During the WHO meeting, India, Brazil, Nigeria, and Iran also charged that rich countries are more interested in sharing viruses than benefits.