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.