Discover Magazine has just published online an article (
The Intellectual Property Fight That Could Kill Millions, by Delthia Ricks) from their December issue about the claim by Sita Supari, head of Indonesia's Health Ministry, that flu viruses in Indonesia are the property of the Indonesian government. This has caused a standoff between Indonesia and other countries as well as the WHO, over access to samples of avian bird flu. Indonesia has more cases of bird flu than any other country by a large margin, and other countries want access to the influenza samples in order to develop vaccines before a pandemic breaks out. Supari's stance is that western nations will patent the virus genomes and sell them for profit without sharing the viral information with countries like Indonesia who desperately need treatment. Without reciprocity of information, she does not want to share access to Indonesian flu cases.
That seems fair enough, but Supari has now cooked up some conspiracy theories and is accusing the U.S. of creating the bird flu and swine flu viruses as biological weapons, presumably to drive up demand for vaccines and drive up the profits of its pharmaceutical companies. Supari's claims have exacerbated the situation.
Conspiracy theories aside, the intellectual property questions raised are interesting. Can elements of biology, like genetic codes or viral genomes, be someone's, or some nation's, property? What about individual rights to one's own biology (what if an individual Indonesian afflicted with bird flu wanted to give a sample from himself to the WHO, for example)?