When “Sovereignty” Risks Global Health

NEW YORK – Here’s a concept you’ve probably never heard of: “viral sovereignty.” This 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 world’s peoples. Political leaders around the world should take note – and take very strong action.

The vast majority of avian flu outbreaks in the past four years, in both humans and poultry, have occurred in Indonesia. At least 53 types of H5N1 bird flu viruses have appeared in chickens and people there, according to the World Health Organization.

Yet, since 2005, Indonesia has shared with the WHO samples from only two of the more than 135 people known to have been infected with H5N1 (110 of whom have died). Worse, Indonesia is no longer providing the WHO with timely notification of bird flu outbreaks or human cases. Since 2007, its government has openly defied international health regulations and a host of other WHO agreements to which Indonesia is a signatory.

Moreover, Indonesia’s government is threatening to close down United States Naval Medical Research Unit Two (NAMRU-2), a public health laboratory staffed by Indonesians and US military scientists. NAMRU-2 is one of the world’s best disease surveillance facilities, providing health officials worldwide with vital, transparent information. Indonesia’s government has accused NAMRU-2 scientists of everything from profiting from its “sovereign” viruses to manufacturing the H5N1 bird flu as part of an alleged biological warfare scheme. There is no evidence to support these outlandish claims.