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Here's a term to add to the jargon pile: Viral Sovereignty.

This extremely dangerous idea comes to us courtesy of Indonesia's minister of health, Siti Fadilah Supari, who asserts that deadly viruses are the sovereign property of individual nations -- even though they cross borders and could pose a pandemic threat to all the peoples of the world.

The Indonesian argument -- now set to be ratified by the Non-Aligned Movement general gathering in November -- is that the information derived from viruses found in a particular country should be the property of that country to control as it sees fit.

The analogy here is to the properties of local plants and animals. In the past, it wasn't uncommon for big country companies to come in to a developing nation, look around for interesting naturally-occuring products, and patent globally anything that they found -- a practice that became known as "biopiracy." Brazil, India, and other leapfrog powerhouses started to push back both politically and legally, often successfully using claims of "prior art" to defeat patents. Traditional Knowledge Libraries and similar data-gathering projects hope to make biopiracy a thing of the past by carefully documenting local uses.

Yay, good work, and all that (seriously). But the assertion of sovereign control over virus strains seems to push the boundaries of legitimacy.

The focus of Indonesia's complaint is Avian Flu, H5N1. Despite Indonesia being a hot zone for H5N1 infections, the Jakarta government no longer cooperates with the World Health Organization, refusing to provide samples of the virus taken from infected people, or even providing timely notification of outbreaks.

Indonesia claims that the US Naval Medical Research Unit in Indonesia, which has focused its attention on H5N1, is actually a front for biowarfare against the Islamic world, corporations looking to monopolize treatments for the viruses, corporations looking to use the viruses to make people sick to be able to sell more treatments, and even the source of H5N1 in Indonesia.

All of this would be silly and tragic, were it not for the endorsement of the concept of viral sovereignty by the Indian Health Minister, and the agreement of the Non-Aligned Movement to formally consider endorsing Indonesia's claims in its next meeting.

As Richard Holbrooke and Laurie Garrett make clear in their editorial earlier this month -- and as I've written about, myself -- it's extraordinarily important for information about potential pandemic diseases to be made as open as possible, if we want to avoid a global health disaster. Withholding viral data, and refusing to provide samples of the viruses, out of a misplaced fear of viropiracy (or more paranoid fantasies), is simply criminal.


Wrong on almost all counts. For a sane perspective on this issue, please see my essay "Richard Holbrooke and Laurie Garrett are full of Sh*t", at the URL linked above.

Interesting; I've added your site to my reading list.

You claim in your post on Holbrooke & Garrett that Indonesia continues to provide timely information about outbreaks; you don't provide a link supporting that assertion (and I'd dearly love for it to be true). Do you have anything showing that Indonesia is, in fact, still giving good info on infections?

I'm actually in full agreement with you when it comes to the patent issues, and found you proposed Global Virus Sharing System to be a very useful set of ideas. Except for the requirement of sovereignty over viruses, that is -- I simply find the notion that a state can assert sovereign controls over a virus with significant global public health implications to be unacceptable -- as unacceptable as a corporate entity claiming patent rights over the same virus/information.

There's an implicit assumption that seems to be at work here -- that, left to their own devices, governments (in the developing world, that is) will generally do what's right when it comes to global health, whereas corporations and global North governments will generally do what's in their short-term pecuniary interests. If Malaysia (or wherever) doesn't want to allow access to biological materials useful for (say) cosmetic and lifestyle drugs, more power to them. But if a government in *any* country decides that it's not going to allow access to biological materials needed to deal with an incipient global health emergency... I'm not inclined to be as welcoming.

Will Indonesia do that? I don't see any reason why they would, so I'm making no accusations. But there's at least some evidence that they haven't been entirely forthcoming.

Get rid of viral patents, yes. But getting rid of incentives for opacity and restriction will mean more than that -- it will also mean getting rid of the notion of sovereignty over viral strains.

The lack of said url, together with the tone of the title, suggests your perspective is anything but sane.
(Still, by all means, provide a link)

Tony, I presumed that he meant the blog linked at his name -- but I went ahead and added links to the specific Holbrooke/Garrett piece, as well as to another relevant article at his site.

If the viral information is to be open source shouldn't the ongoing research data also be?

I agree with the principle, but I think you're underestimating the risk of the same folks that brought us agent orange and depleted uranium going ahead and weaponizing bird flu. It's only paranoia if there's disproportional precedent.


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