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Virus diplomacy – Who owns what

Published on 14 November 2011
Updated on 19 March 2024

Have you ever thought of owning your viruses? Well, we are not there yet, but countries may do just that. In 2007, the Indonesian government refused to share samples of the avian influenza virus A (H5N1) via international mechanisms run by the World Health Organization for surveillance or vaccine development purposes. Still smarting from its experience of an Australian pharmaceutical company profiting from a vaccine derived from a virus strain it provided, Indonesia has requested cheaper and affordable access to the vaccine produced by using virus samples they contributed. Indonesia’s main criticism was of the missing link between public knowledge of viruses and private benefits of pharmaceutical companies who produced vaccines. Legally speaking, Indonesia argued that its national sovereignty extends to viruses as well. It also used some provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The crisis was avoided by very skilful negotiations led by Mexico and Norway which created a mechanism to address some of Indonesia’s concerns. This virus diplomacy crisis has opened up the issue of the ultimate limits of ownership in the modern world. Are there any? Does ownership extend to anything that could have economic value (e.g. knowledge of viruses – ways to develop a vaccine)? Here is detailed analysis of the Indonesia virus case.  

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