APEC health ministers agreed Friday to share samples of the bird flu virus to help develop effective vaccines, setting aside disputes over who "owns" the disease. The 21-nation group wrapped up a meeting in Australia by signing a declaration committing them to share samples of the H5N1 virus, which the World Health Organisation says has killed 188 people worldwide since 2003.
Indonesia refused to share bird flu virus samples with foreign laboratories last December in a dispute over intellectual property rights. While Jakarta resumed virus-sharing last month, it remains concerned about the possibility that multinational drug companies would use an Indonesian bird flu virus to develop vaccines that poor countries cannot afford.
Australian Health Minister Tony Abbott said he had considerable sympathy for Indonesia's position but that research should not be hindered because the possibility of a pandemic was "very real". Abbott said scientists needed access to the latest mutations of the H5N1 virus to develop a cure but also conceded it was important that those economies which provided samples receive tangible benefits in return.
"The last thing we want to see is the situation where some countries get the disease and other countries get the vaccines," he said. But he said rapid virus-sharing was imperative. "It would be tragic if there was any significant interruption in virus sharing and we weren't able to see what's exactly happening to this virus," he said.
Abbott said a pandemic could have a devastating impact on the 21 APEC economies, pointing out that the SARS epidemic cut East Asian economic growth by two percent in the second quarter of 2003 even though only 8,000 people were directly affected. "Any flu pandemic would have a vastly greater impact," he said.
Scientists fear the bird flu virus could mutate into a form easily spread among humans, leading to a global pandemic with the potential to kill millions.