Bird Flu Tug of War Underway


AP is reporting a very important story today about Indonesia’s battle for control over H5N1 avian flu strains with the World Health Organization.
WHO should have access to the viral material and should share it with pharmaceutical companies working on a vaccine. But Indonesia’s gripes are legitimate and deserve to be taken seriously. A scenario could indeed play out in which Indonesia, which has suffered more confirmed bird flu-related deaths than any other country, shares its information and then cannot afford the vaccine produced as a result of its good-faith cooperation.
HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt had this to say:

“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 $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.”

Mike Leavitt’s not wrong – in fact, his talk is right on here. But the U.S. and the international community are far from off the hook. We are not doing our part.
Committing to share a substantial portion of bird flu vaccines at a steep discount or for free would be a good first step, but even that falls short of what’s needed.
A colleague and I used to joke that poultry farmers simply need to stop kissing chickens. Obviously, the picture is vastly more complex, but our joke holds a grain of truth. The most effective preventive action the world can take – for developing countries and aid donors alike – would be to vastly expand education and assistance to developing country poultry farmers. It’s sorely needed.
Indonesia is one of many countries that has suffered from avian flu, figures to suffer more in the future, and lacks the resources to contain or protect itself from the deadly disease. I think its withholding of virus samples is a negotiating tactic to get more help. WHO is optimistic that it can break the impasse improve access to flu vaccines in developing countries.
I hope the negotiating works out as it should – Indonesia gets the help and assurances it needs, and WHO gets the viral strains it needs to help pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine.
— Scott Paul


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