Vaccines and Global Health: Indonesia, the World Bank and Pandemic Influenza

Pandemic preparedness is a tricky question in global health governance. How do you create a framework that will ensure the global public good, in a context in which if every country follows its national interest, all nations may wind up in a worse position than if they cooperated? What makes influenza a challenging problem to address is its episodic nature. The last highly lethal pandemic was in 1918. In 2007 the mortality from avian flu in Indonesia was 87%. This means that the global community needs to prepare for this threat, but it cannot know when a pandemic may begin. For other diseases –malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS- there is an alphabet soup of non-governmental organizations that advocate for those who are ill or at risk. These don’t exist for influenza, because of its episodic nature, which makes influenza a distinct global health governance issue. For this reason, the World Health Organization may not be able to prepare for a pandemic on its own, although it would certainly have authority once a pandemic had begun. Within the current framework, there seems no way to address the current stand-off regarding viral seed stock sharing, which threatens to create “rogue states” out of nations such as Indonesia. In this sense, a rogue state is a nation that acts outside the framework of international law and practice, although this definition is always also political. Currently, the United States is trying to identify next-generation vaccine technologies that will create more vaccine in a faster fashion. This will help, but there is no technological solution to this ethical and political problem.

Influenza Virus by renjith krishnan at freedigitalphotos.net

One example illustrates this point. In order to create pre-pandemic vaccines, global health authorities need access to virus samples from regional outbreaks. But countries that have avian flu outbreaks may not benefit from the vaccine, which means that they are sometimes unwilling to share this seed stock. In 2007 Indonesia decided to not share viral samples with the World Health Organization, and instead to make a private deal with a vaccine manufacturer.  Indonesia was frustrated that viral samples it had shared with the World Health Organization had been shared with pharmaceutical companies to create vaccines, and that some companies allegedly intended to patent sections of the virus’s genome. For this reason, the nation tried to reach an arrangement with Baxter Healthcare, in which Indonesia would exchange viral samples in return for inexpensive access to vaccine, as well as other assistance to prepare the nation for a pandemic. Developed countries harshly criticized Indonesia’s decision,  which was depicted it as a “rogue state” in the global health system. But Indonesia argued that the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity gave it control over genetic material from within its borders, thus creating the idea of “viral sovereignty.” From Indonesia’s perspective, they were cutting out the middleman, the World Health Organization, as part of an effort to ensure better access to vaccine for their population. …

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