The tough stand taken by Indonesia on sharing bird flu samples with the World Health Organisation collaborating centres has brought in substantial changes for the better. The world body has put in place an electronic tracking system that will allow free public access to all H5N1 and other potentially pandemic human virus samples the affected countries had shared with it through the Global Influenza Surveillance Network (GISN). The system, which has data on shared samples, will allow contributing countries to know whether their samples have been developed into vaccine viruses and, if so, who the recipients of those vaccine viruses are. The system would also indicate if the developed countries have been prompt in sharing their samples, as claimed by them. The stand-off between Indonesia and the WHO over sample-sharing in return for assured vaccine supply in case of a pandemic had brought to light the non-transparent nature of the surveillance network. Though countries that have had bird flu outbreaks are obliged to share samples with the WHO, until now they had no way of knowing who were using their samples and for what purposes. For instance, there was the case of an Australia-based pharmaceutical company making use of the Indonesian strain to develop a bird flu vaccine without Indonesia being aware of it.

It is shameful that though the network has been in place for 60 years, there has been a lot of confusion about who the players are and how it operates. That, apart from the collaborating centres, there were other institutions involved in the GISN became clear only last year confirms the opaqueness of the system. Though the primary concern of Indonesia, which played a leading role in highlighting the inequity of the sample-sharing system, remains largely unaddressed, the way the world body was compelled to accede to its demand for a data-tracking system should strengthen its resolve to secure a fair mechanism for making vaccines available when a pandemic strikes anywhere. The developed countries see Indonesia’s reluctance to share its samples as putting everybody at great risk. But it should be borne in mind that the developing countries were compelled to resort to such brinkmanship only to fight inequity in the world of vaccine and drug research. The time has come for the WHO to change its policies that are antiquated and skewed in favour of the developed countries having large pharmaceutical industries so that the developing countries are given a fair deal. If this cannot be achieved through negotiations, developing countries might be tempted to follow Indonesia’s example and force the issue when a crisis is at hand.