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Biosecurity and infectious disease

By Peter Curson - posted Monday, 27 October 2008

In the world of international relations with its current fears about biosecurity and infectious disease, whether naturally occurring or purposely released, things are not always as they first seem.

In 2007 Indonesia came under widespread criticism for refusing to provide bird flu samples to the WHO because of fears that commercial interests would obtain the samples and produce vaccines that countries like Indonesia could not afford.

To many people, this seemed a valid fear in that many developing countries are often priced out of needed medicines and likely to be at the back of a world queue for vaccine during a pandemic. Such a stance won widespread support throughout Asia as well among some of the mainstream Western media.


But the story gets murkier.

It would also appear, from a recently released book by the Indonesian Health Minister, that the ban on making samples readily available to research labs in the USA was also related to the fear that Washington could use such material to construct biological weapons.

At the time, the US Secretary for Defence, Robert Gates poured scorn on the allegation, stating that it was “the nuttiest thing” that he had ever heard. But things are not always what they seem. It has recently come to light that inside the 86-page Supplement to the US Export Regulations there is a single sentence that clearly bars US exports of vaccines for a wide variety of human infections, including bird flu, human influenza, dengue and ebola, to a number of pariah states.

The reason. Fear that such material might fall into the wrong hands and that these countries might just use such material to develop biological weapons and sponsor terrorism. It seems that in our insecure world, biosecurity fears reign supreme. Little known until recently, this clause, enacted more than a decade ago, bans countries like North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Syria and the Sudan from receiving life saving vaccines even during times of severe crisis unless they first apply for a Special Export Licence, granted at the discretion of the US Government.

Given the constraints of bureaucracy a decision on such a request would probably take weeks. Interviewed recently about the clause the US Commerce Assistant Secretary, Christopher Wall would only say that there were valid security concerns for such a policy.

To many people, such fears might seem far-fetched and it does seem unlikely that bird flu viruses might be genetically engineered to create bio-weapons. More significant is that the denial of access to life-saving vaccines raises many moral and human rights issues and has widespread implications in a world where infectious diseases recognise no national borders and where an epidemic in any country in the world has implications for all countries.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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