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U.N. seeks bird flu vaccine for poor

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[May 24, 2007]  GENEVA (AP) -- The U.N. health agency on Tuesday reached a preliminary agreement that seeks to ensure all countries share their H5N1 virus samples with the World Health Organization and that poor countries get a portion of future pandemic flu vaccines.

The draft resolution, which is expected to be formally adopted by the World Health Assembly on Wednesday, says that the agency will work out rules to guarantee "timely sharing of viruses" between affected countries and WHO, and ensure "fair and equitable distribution of pandemic influenza vaccines at affordable prices in the event of a pandemic."

The text, the result of strenuous negotiations between WHO member states, is written in very general terms without defining what a fair distribution of vaccines or timely sample sharing actually means. It also does not specify the details surrounding the formation of a pandemic flu vaccine stockpile, or how the stockpile would be distributed.

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.

Indonesia has not shared any bird flu samples since last December, arguing that the pharmaceutical companies that could develop vaccines would 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.

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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.

An Indonesian-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 passed by Committee A today said 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.

Keeping the resolution rather vague, much work remains to be done by a WHO working group that is supposed to formulate the terms and conditions for virus and vaccine sharing.

[Text copied from file received from AP Digital]

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