Scientists warn against closing Navy lab

Indonesia facility is called an asset

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Paul Watson
Los Angeles Times / July 7, 2008

JAKARTA, Indonesia -Threats to shut down a US 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 said it didn't benefit Indonesia and could be a cover for spying.

The US Embassy denied 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 scientists, doctors, veterinarians, and technologists, but only 19 are American. The rest are Indonesians.

Navy research labs also are in Egypt, Kenya, Peru, and Thailand.

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

Dr. Siti Fadilah Supari, the health minister, also said she had recommended to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that it be closed.

"I've told the president the lab's useless, the cooperation degrades our sovereignty, and it should be shut down," Supari told members of Parliament last month. "He told me to shut it if I think it's no use."

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 US Embassy spokesman Tristram Perry said he was not aware of any date for talks to resume.

US 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 naval lab did research on normal flu viruses from seasonal outbreaks as well bird flu cases treated in Indonesian hospitals.

"Sometimes you test a virus and you don't know if it's Avian influenza, or normal flu, or something completely different," said a Western scientist who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of negotiations with Indonesia.

Now those viruses appear not to be going anywhere for testing, the scientist said, adding that Indonesian labs cannot do the sophisticated research the Americans can do.

"Nobody knows what they are," she added. "Maybe there could be a pandemic from a different, new strain."

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, according to the agency's figures.

A second Western scientist said that 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.

"Many groups have tried to bring in scientists to work in the [Indonesian] labs and there's been resistance to that," added the second scientist. "There's a very nationalist spirit here."

After announcing the ban on virus-sharing, the health minister, who is a cardiologist, published a book in which she warned that any viruses shared with other countries could be turned into biological weapons.

She also recounted a meeting in Geneva with John E. Lange, the US special representative for pandemic flu, in which she told him: "It is not impossible that there will be a group of people in developed countries insane enough to reengineer the viruses to create an outbreak in the Third World.' "

Her book, widely sold in English and Bahasa editions, also said 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," the health minister 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."

In January, she insisted the move to stop virus-sharing was necessary to protect poor nations from profiteering drug companies. Indonesia says it fears vaccines developed from local viruses will go to foreigners first, leaving Indonesians without protection or profit.

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