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Indonesian worries over lab could hurt U.S. flu research

JAKARTA, Indonesia —Threats to shut down a U.S. Navy medical research lab here might undermine the hunt for mutating viruses that could set off the next global 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 claimed 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 are Indonesians helping with research carried out in cooperation with local health officials.

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

It has a staff of about 175, but only 19 are American. The rest are Indonesians.

Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono said last month that his ministry recommended the lab be closed because its operations were too secretive and incompatible with Indonesia's security interests.

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 global pandemic.

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

In its current form, the avian flu spreads from birds, usually infected 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 percent of its victims in Indonesia, the agency's figures show.

A Western scientist said 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.

After announcing the ban on virus-sharing, Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari, a cardiologist, published a book in which she warned that viruses shared with other countries could be turned into biological weapons.

Her book also claimed 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," she 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 re-engineered to create a new generation of slaves."

Indonesian worries over lab could hurt U.S. flu research 07/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 2:31pm]
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