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WHO Announces Deal on Sharing Bird Flu Virus

Addressing the concerns of developing countries like Indonesia, the Unjted Nations health body, the World Health Organization (WHO), has promised efforts would be made to ensure "fair and equitable distribution of pandemic influenza vaccines at affordable prices in the event of a pandemic."

At the same time the bird-flu-hit countries agreed to "timely sharing of viruses" with the WHO.

A resolution on those lines is being adopted by the World Heath Assembly. The discussion on virus sample sharing was among the predominant subjects at WHO's annual meeting against the backdrop of an ongoing battle with Indonesia over H5N1 virus samples.

Several experimental pre-pandemic vaccines based on H5N1 exist, but as the virus continues to mutate, scientists need to match the latest circulating strains to that in the vaccine, to ensure that the vaccines would work.

But Indonesia, China have shown reluctance in sharing the strain samples.

Indonesia has not shared any bird flu samples since last December, pointing out that the pharmaceutical companies that could develop vaccines could make them too expensive for its population.

Though Indonesia's health minister last week announced that the country had shared three viruses with a WHO-accredited laboratory in Japan, it is uncertain whether further viruses will be shared.

China has also been reluctant to share samples. No H5N1 viruses have been received from China for nearly a year -- during which time Beijing has reported several human bird flu cases. China is preparing five virus samples to share with WHO, but it is unknown when they will actually be sent, according to WHO.

WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan last week harshly criticized countries that do not share their H5N1 virus samples, accusing them of crippling the world in the fight against a possible flu pandemic. But she didnt comment on Indonesias fears.

An Indonesi an-led draft proposal by developing countries had asked WHO to give H5N1 virus samples to vaccine manufactures only with the consent of the donor country.

But the resolution now worked out only says that "in times of public health emergencies of international concern," manufacturers should be given "full access" to viruses from WHO. Although the text falls short of defining what constitutes a public health emergency, WHO officials said it would apply in the case of a flu pandemic.

News of the deal came as Vietnam announced its first human case of the H5N1 virus since November 2005.

A WHO representative in Vietnam said samples of the virus strain would be sent to its associated labs for analysis.

On Tuesday, Ghana reported that it had found a second confirmed case of the H5N1 virus in the centre of the country, some distance from the first case, discovered at the beginning of May.

Since the H5N1 virus emerged in South East Asia in late 2003, it has claimed more than 180 lives around the world.

Indonesia has been hardest hit, with more than 70 deaths.

Scientists fear the virus could mutate to a form which could be easily passed from human to human, triggering a pandemic.


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