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Indonesia limits access to bird flu samples

KAI RYSSDAL: Despite the news over the weekend bird flu has been found in British turkeys, there's still no sign of a pandemic among humans. It's back in the news today because Indonesia has stopped sharing its samples of the virus with the World Health Organization.

Indonesia's had the most bird flu deaths...so the WHO's anxious to get its hands on their samples. Instead...the country's Health Ministry signed an agreement to with an international drug company.

Helen Palmer reports from the Marketplace Health Desk at WGBH


HELEN PALMER: Top of the list of those worried by Indonesia's move to hold back samples is the World Health Organization itself.
DICK THOMPSON: We're very concerned about this development.

That's the WHO's Dick Thompson. The organization gives genetic samples to virologists who track changes in the deadly H5N1 virus. And it is changing, says Stephen Morse. He's an epidemiologist at Columbia University's School of public health.

STEPHEN MORSE: We've been able to determine, for example, that there are three separate subgroups of H5N1, so the subgroup in Vietnam is different from the one in Indonesia.

The Indonesian strain is the deadliest — 63 of the 81 cases have died. Indonesia's health ministry says the deal with drug company Baxter International will ensure prompt access to any H5N1 vaccine. It says Asia's supplied the West with flu strains free for 50 years, yet can't afford annual flu vaccines. The WHO's Dick Thompson sympathizes with Indonesia's position.

THOMPSON: Millions of lives must have been saved because people had access to these viruses from Asia.

But Baxter International's spokeswoman Deborah Spak says nothing in their agreement prevents Indonesia from sharing genetic data with the WHO.

DEBORAH SPAK: We do not have any exclusive or proprietary access to the virus strains.

Meantime, Columbia's Stephen Morse says the West should help Indonesia develop labs and factories to make vaccines. If a pandemic were to develop, we'd need them.

In Boston, I'm Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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