CONTINUED FROM PAGE 45
of the world since it began nearly three years ago, and he suggests
a way to prevent similar disputes in the future: Developed countries should provide technology transfer to help poor countries,
allowing them to produce their own vaccines. NAMRU- 2 could
have been a site for such instruction, but its sour relationship with
the Indonesian government makes the possibility unlikely—unless,
of course, a deal can be struck.
Fukuda of the WHO has been involved in talks to broker that
deal. He sees strength in some of the Indonesian claims. “From
my perspective and from listening to the minister from Indonesia
talk on this issue a number of times, I think the one point that the
Indonesian government has made over and over—and the main
reason they are holding back—is that they regard the whole system as to how viruses get turned into vaccines unfair,” he says.
The issue is not about intellectual property per se, in Fukuda’s
view, but about sharing bene;ts derived from the viral material
that a country provides.
Supari’s stance trains a spotlight on tenets in the Convention
on Biological Diversity, an international agreement hammered out
in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The initiative provides protection under
international law for genetic resources within a country’s borders.
It was created in part because poor nations were feeling pushed
around by wealthy ones.
“Countries were saying, ‘You’re coming here taking our stuff
and we’re not getting anything in return,’” says Richard Gold, a
professor of law at McGill University in Montreal, referring to the
state of affairs that led to the Rio pact. The initiative also promotes
“fair and equitable sharing of genetic resources.”
Still, there are striking differences between the issues on the
table in Brazil 17 years ago and the concerns involving Indonesia now. In 1992 countries were mostly focused on controlling
the genes from indigenous plants. Viral genes are another story
entirely, because they easily move with people across international
borders, causing diseases thousands of miles away. The human
impact of delaying access to ;u genes is also much more stark.
Gold, who serves as president of the Innovation Partnership, a
nonpro;t devoted to smoothing impasses in intellectual property
disputes, is not involved in the ;u standoff, but he describes it as
a classic case of poor versus rich. “I wouldn’t be so quick to condemn Indonesia,” he says, despite his disagreement with Supari’s
stance. “If you have a population that is suffering from this virus
and no one is giving you assurances that you will share in a vaccine, then you’ve got a problem. The whole stability of the country
could be at risk. It’s not a negligible issue. What Indonesia is asking
for is access to products that come out of biological materials they
have shared, at a price they can afford.”
NOVEMBER’S WHAT IS THIS?
This computer-rendered image
depicts a Rayleigh-Taylor instability:
a turbulent, gravity-driven mixing
of fluids that occurs in stars (and
in boiling water) when a heavy
substance sits atop a lighter one.
Astrophysicists at the University of
Minnesota conducted a supercom-
puter simulation of sunlike stars
to model this turbulence, which
violently but effectively circulates
heat in the region just below the
THE NEW COLD WAR
Will peace ever reign between Supari’s Health Ministry and the
superpowers that control ;u science? In December of last year
the U.S. State Department hoped for a complete resolution of the
dispute by 2009. But then the new swine ;u strain began girdling
the globe, forcing its avian cousin deeper into the recesses of
public consciousness. And that was not the only change. A senior
State Department of;cial, who agreed to speak to DISCOVER on
the condition that his name remain out of print, recently left the
agency. Before his departure he had been cautiously optimistic: “If
this is resolved by May, this would, I assume, solve the immediate
concern of not receiving samples from Indonesia,” he said early in
the process. But nearly a year later, it appears that no progress
has been made. “We continue to discuss the future of NAMRU- 2
with the Indonesian government,” says another U.S. government
source. Some observers say that, rather than continuing to negotiate with the Indonesians, the American government might simply
decide to establish an infectious-diseases lab elsewhere in Southeast Asia where the government is friendlier.
Yet the wide proliferation of H5N1 strains in Indonesia makes
that approach risky. Not knowing precisely how H5N1 is mutating
there leaves a frightening vacuum, especially with a second novel
;u virus, the swine ;u, circulating worldwide. Currently there is no
evidence of a gene swap between H5N1 and H1N1, according to
WHO of;cials, but the potential certainly exists. And questions
abound, many from researchers and developers who say they
need recent virus samples to produce more ef;cient vaccines.
“When viruses are unavailable for work in the lab, that is really a
downside,” says Larry Smith, vice president of vaccine research at
Vical Inc. in San Diego. Like scientists at the CDC, Vical has developed a DNA vaccine, this one based on an H5N1 strain from Vietnam. Unlike the CDC, Vical has already tested its vaccine in human
volunteers throughout the United States. The Vical treatment has
been shown to produce a potent immune response, a sign that DNA
vaccines could offer powerful protection if H5N1 mutates into a pandemic strain. “We wanted to test our vaccine against H5N1 from
Indonesia to see what the breadth of our antibody response would
be against that strain,” Smith says. “The WHO was making a request
on our behalf. We really can’t make those appeals ourselves.” Despite
his company’s entreaties, the request has not been granted. Instead,
Vical tested the vaccine against H5N1 strains from other countries.
Scientists in academia also are hoping for a breakthrough in combating ;u viruses. In addition to studying samples, some researchers say they wish they could follow H5N1’s footprint, tracking how
deeply it has become entrenched and monitoring the pervasiveness
of outbreaks in wild and domestic birds. Most important, scientists
want better information on how the virus is affecting people. “We
don’t know what’s going on in Indonesia,” says Andrea Gambotto,
a University of Pittsburgh vaccinologist who has also developed an
innovative vaccine based on H5N1 genes from Vietnam.
Gambotto worries that the lack of fresh statistics poses a risk
to everyone—including the people of Indonesia. “In Indonesia the
epidemiology is poor, the surveillance is poor, and the mortality is
worse than the virus that caused the pandemic in 1918. Anything
we can ;nd out would be helpful,” he says.