JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Threats to shut down a U.S. Navy medical research lab here may undermine the hunt for mutating viruses that could set off the next 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 U.S. Embassy firmly denied that the facility is used to gather intelligence, and said most of the lab's staff members are Indonesians helping with research carried out in cooperation with local health officials.
The biomedical research lab opened in Jakarta in 1970 and is used to study 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; only 19 are Americans and the rest are Indonesians. The Navy also has research labs in Egypt, Kenya, Peru and Thailand.
Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono said last month that his ministry recommended that the lab be closed because its operations were too secretive and were incompatible with Indonesia's security interests. Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari 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 [of] 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 U.S. Embassy spokesman Tristram Perry said he was not aware of any date for talks to resume.
U.S. 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 pandemic.
Before Indonesia announced in January 2007 that it would no longer share samples with other countries, the U.S. naval lab did research on normal flu viruses from seasonal outbreaks as well as 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 the negotiations.
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 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% of its victims in Indonesia, the agency's figures show.
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," the second scientist said. "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 U.S. 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 Indonesia 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 reengineered to create a new generation of slaves."
Early this year, she insisted that the move to stop virus-sharing was necessary to protect poor nations from profiteering drug companies. Indonesia says it fears that vaccines developed from local viruses will go to foreigners first, leaving Indonesians without protection or profit.
In March, Supari pledged to resume sharing, but only with WHO researchers. Supari said she won assurances that no vaccine would be developed from the Indonesian samples without the country's consent. The organization said it would work out details of an agreement in negotiations.
Since virus-sharing was stopped, Indonesia has confirmed that 52 more people have come down with bird flu. The Health Ministry gave foreign researchers virus samples from only six of those cases, the first Western scientist said.
Indonesia's hard line against cooperation also affects research on regular flu strains, which kill 250,000 to 500,000 people worldwide annually.
Most of those outbreaks start in Southeast Asia, British scientists Derek Smith and Colin Russell reported in a study published this year. That makes it crucial for U.S. researchers to keep working here, the Western scientists said.