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Indonesia to shut Navy lab researching avian flu

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    Indonesia seeks to shut Navy lab researching avian flu By Paul Watson July 5, 2008 Los Angeles Times
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 8, 2008
      Indonesia seeks to shut Navy lab researching avian flu
      By Paul Watson
      July 5, 2008
      Los Angeles Times

      TROPICAL DISEASES: Politicians say the U.S. Naval Medical Research
      Unit's work doesn't benefit Indonesia.

      Politicians say the U.S. facility doesn't benefit Indonesia and
      could be a cover for spying. The move may undermine the hunt for
      mutating viruses that could set off a pandemic, scientists warn.

      JAKARTA, INDONESIA -- Threats to shut down a U.S. Navy medical
      research lab here may undermine the hunt for mutating viruses that
      could set off the next flu pandemic, Western scientists warn.

      Indonesia suspended negotiations with the United States over the
      fate of Naval Medical Research Unit No. 2 last month after senior
      politicians said it didn't benefit Indonesia and could be a cover
      for spying.

      The U.S. Embassy firmly denied that the facility is used to gather
      intelligence, and said most of the lab's staff members are
      Indonesians helping with research carried out in cooperation with
      local health officials.

      The biomedical research lab opened in Jakarta in 1970 and is used to
      study tropical diseases, including malaria, dengue fever and avian
      flu, according to an embassy fact sheet.

      It has a staff of about 175 scientists, doctors, veterinarians and
      technologists; only 19 are Americans and the rest are Indonesians.
      The Navy also has research labs in Egypt, Kenya, Peru and Thailand.

      Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono said last month that his ministry
      recommended that the lab be closed because its operations were too
      secretive and were incompatible with Indonesia's security interests.
      Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari also said she had recommended to
      President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that it be closed.

      "I've told the president the lab's useless, the cooperation degrades
      our sovereignty and it should be shut down," Supari told members of
      parliament last month. "He told me to shut it if I think it's [of]
      no use."

      Negotiations on the lab would resume as early as this month, the
      Foreign Ministry said, once the country had a "unified stand" on the
      issue. But U.S. Embassy spokesman Tristram Perry said he was not
      aware of any date for talks to resume.

      U.S. officials say privately that the dispute is part of a bigger
      argument over sharing virus samples, including strains of the avian
      flu, which the World Health Organization warns could set off a

      Before Indonesia announced in January 2007 that it would no longer
      share samples with other countries, the U.S. naval lab did research
      on normal flu viruses from seasonal outbreaks as well as bird flu
      cases treated in Indonesian hospitals.

      "Sometimes you test a virus and you don't know if it's avian
      influenza, or normal flu or something completely different," said a
      Western scientist who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the
      sensitivity of the negotiations.

      Now those viruses appear not to be going anywhere for testing, the
      scientist said, adding that Indonesian labs cannot do the
      sophisticated research the Americans can do.

      "Nobody knows what they are," she added. "Maybe there could be a
      pandemic from a different, new strain."

      In its current form, the avian flu spreads from birds, usually
      poultry, to humans, but the infection rate is low. Indonesia leads
      the world in bird flu deaths with at least 110 confirmed since 2005,
      according to WHO. The virus kills 81% of its victims in Indonesia,
      the agency's figures show.

      A second Western scientist said that Indonesia has many strains of
      the avian flu virus, and that without constant research, a different
      strain more easily transmitted to humans could catch scientists off
      guard, and spread rapidly before a vaccine is ready.

      "Many groups have tried to bring in scientists to work in the
      [Indonesian] labs, and there's been resistance to that," the second
      scientist said. "There's a very nationalist spirit here."

      After announcing the ban on virus-sharing, the health minister, who
      is a cardiologist, published a book in which she warned that any
      viruses shared with other countries could be turned into biological

      She also recounted a meeting in Geneva with John E. Lange, the U.S.
      special representative for pandemic flu, in which she told him, "It
      is not impossible that there will be a group of people in developed
      countries insane enough to reengineer the viruses to create an
      outbreak in the Third World."

      Her book, widely sold in English and Bahasa Indonesia editions, also
      said the pressure to share viruses was an example of exploitation of
      developing countries' natural resources.

      "They also exploited part of the human body from the people of the
      powerless countries," the health minister wrote. "They took our
      blood. They took our cells. They took our antibodies.

      "And perhaps it would be more dangerous when, in the end they would
      take our brain cells as well, to be reengineered to create a new
      generation of slaves."

      Early this year, she insisted that the move to stop virus-sharing
      was necessary to protect poor nations from profiteering drug
      companies. Indonesia says it fears that vaccines developed from
      local viruses will go to foreigners first, leaving Indonesians
      without protection or profit.

      In March, Supari pledged to resume sharing, but only with WHO
      researchers. Supari said she won assurances that no vaccine would be
      developed from the Indonesian samples without the country's consent.
      The organization said it would work out details of an agreement in

      Since virus-sharing was stopped, Indonesia has confirmed that 52
      more people have come down with bird flu. The Health Ministry gave
      foreign researchers virus samples from only six of those cases, the
      first Western scientist said.

      Indonesia's hard line against cooperation also affects research on
      regular flu strains, which kill 250,000 to 500,000 people worldwide

      Most of those outbreaks start in Southeast Asia, British scientists
      Derek Smith and Colin Russell reported in a study published this
      year. That makes it crucial for U.S. researchers to keep working
      here, the Western scientists said.

      paul.watson @ latimes.com



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