Academic journal article Journal of International and Global Studies

Biopiracy and Vaccines: Indonesia and the World Health Organization's New Pandemic Influenza Plan

Academic journal article Journal of International and Global Studies

Biopiracy and Vaccines: Indonesia and the World Health Organization's New Pandemic Influenza Plan

Article excerpt

Introduction

Influenza poses some nearly unique issues in global health governance. The global community is haunted by the memory of 1918, when perhaps as many as 100 million people died during a major influenza pandemic. Despite the continued circulation of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), particularly in South-East Asia and Egypt, the virus directly affects only small numbers of people today. For this reason, influenza lacks the patient advocacy organizations that are a critical aspect of health policy for illnesses such as HIV/AIDS. Accordingly, the most important actors in influenza policy are often not patient groups but rather states, which collaborate with pharmaceutical organizations and international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO). However, the national interests of the developing and the developed nations do not always coincide, particularly with regard to the issue of viral sample sharing for pre-pandemic vaccines. Accordingly, the two blocs view this issue in terms of competing paradigms. For developed countries, international law requires developing countries to share samples in order to support global health security (Elbe, 2010, pp. 476-477; Franklin, 2009, pp. 355-372). For developing countries, viral sample sharing has at times been perceived as a form of biopiracy, which maintains neocolonial relationships and ensures the dependency of developing countries upon the developed world. This issue came to a head in 2007, when Indonesia briefly stopped sharing viral samples of influenza strains with the World Health Organization. This paper will consider the competing views of the developed and developing world during this standoff, and how the World Health Organization has sought to resolve the differences with its Pandemic Influenza Plan of 2011. In the end, the developing world won a limited victory, in part because biopiracy proved to be a more effective tool to frame the issue politically than did international law and security.

Influenza and Vaccines

The influenza virus is a very contagious agent that infects many animals, in which it can cause diverse symptoms, as well as humans, for whom it is mainly a respiratory disease. Because it is a highly mutagenic virus, periodic pandemics sweep the globe, of which the most devastating in modern history occurred in 1918 (Barry, 2005). As Alfred Crosby and Arno Karlen have argued, one of the most unusual aspects of the influenza pandemic was that for a time, it was largely forgotten amongst the general population (Crosby, 1990; Karlen, 1995, p. 145). Global health authorities, however, always remained aware of the dangers that influenza poses. In 1997, an outbreak of HPAI in Hong Kong sickened eighteen people and killed six. The government killed more than a million chickens in a few days, which stamped out the outbreak (Davis, 2005, pp. 45-54). In 2003 and 2004, bird flu again appeared in South East Asia, particularly in Vietnam, and it has since spread to countries as geographically distant as Turkey and Indonesia. While H5N1 receives the most media coverage, other strains of the virus also pose a threat. For example, in February 2004, an outbreak of a different strain of HPAI in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia caused the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to order the destruction of nearly twenty million chickens (Davis, 2005, pp. 94-95). Then, in 2009, a new form of influenza, novel H1N1 (the so-called swine flu) emerged in Mexico. While this form of the virus did not prove to have a high mortality, the outbreak led to intense planning by global health authorities as well as widespread media coverage.

As is well known, the current vaccine system for influenza suffers from multiple weaknesses (Osterholm, Kelly, Sommer, & Belangia, 2012; Youde, 2008, p. 151). The flu virus mutates rapidly, and there are many different strains, each characterized by different proteins in their outer shell. …

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