WHO Launches Tracking System for H5N1 Viruses
(Summary of ProMedMail Report of 24 January 2008)
Responding to concerns raised by Indonesia and other developing countries, the WHO has instituted an electronic tracking system to track H5N1 isolates submitted, and what is done with them. Vietnam and Indonesia have provided the most isolates, but are concerned that private companies that are developing vaccines from these isolates will market vaccines that are too expensive for developing countries to purchase in the event of an outbreak. In 2007, as a result of these concerns, Indonesia withheld samples for 5 months.
A country-by-country list of submissions has been created, and the tracking system permits anyone to search for particular isolates by date of submission, source country, host species, and several other variables. The system provides a page of detailed information for each isolate, including a list of all the laboratories to which the virus has been distributed, including pharmaceutical companies.
734 live H5N1 viruses have been isolated from nearly 9000 human and animal samples submitted since 2003. The isolates provide crucial information for scientists about virus evolution, potential for human infectivity and susceptibility to antiviral drugs.
Currently, 8 viruses derived from selected isolates have been designated as appropriate for vaccine development, and have been distributed to 292 institutions. “Wild-type” viruses have been provided to 46 institutions. Currently, at least 16 companies are licensing a H5N1 vaccine, including Novartis, Glaxo, Baxter, CSL and Sanofi Pasteur.
Both the tracking system and the country-by-country report are results, at least in part, of Indonesia’s concerns about the fairness and openness of the WHO system for the sharing, monitoring, and use of influenza viruses. At the last World Health Assembly in May 2007, a resolution was passed to change the “terms of reference” for international sharing of flu viruses, ensure equitable sharing of flu virus samples and to create international stores of vaccines in the case of a pandemic. In November 2007, a follow-up intergovernmental meeting on flu virus sharing was held, and Indonesia pushed for the right to forbid commercial vaccine development from H5N1 samples.