TWN Info Service
on Intellectual Property Issues (Nov08/08)
28 Nov 2008
Third World Network
Below is a news report on collection of viruses by US military system in about 56 countries.
Wider knowledge of the extent of the US military virus collection system
and its ambiguous relationship to the WHO GISN system will raise important
questions for the WHO Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Inter-Governmental
Meeting (PIP IGM), which will convene in Geneva the second week of December
The collection of
viruses is done from inter alia Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina,
Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi,
Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Oman. Pakistan,
India, Nepal, Bangladesh,
Thailand, Vietnam, Laos,
Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia.
Please see http://www.geis.fhp.osd.mil/
for more information.
The news report was first published in SUNS and is reproduced here with
Third World Network.
US military flu virus collection parallels WHO virus system
SUNS #6599 Thursday 27 November 2008
Bogota, 26 Nov (Edward Hammond*) -- A large and rapidly growing global
US military virus collection system parallels the World Health Organization's
Global Influenza Surveillance Network (WHO GISN) but does not entirely
share its public health purposes.
The US military system is a source of
viruses for the WHO GISN; but it does not give most of its virus collections
to WHO. It does keep all the lab specimens and viruses it collects for
its own use.
of the extent of the US military virus collection system and its ambiguous
relationship to the WHO GISN system will raise important questions for
the WHO Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Inter-Governmental Meeting (PIP
IGM), which will convene in Geneva the second week of December.
The extent of the
Pentagon's quiet but large virus collecting and its relationships with
the WHO GISN will surprise many. For example, the Pentagon claims credit
for having collected several important influenza viruses that were subsequently
selected by WHO for use in seasonal and H5N1 pre-pandemic vaccines from
2000 through the present, including viruses from Panama, Peru, Nepal,
Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Some developed countries,
including the United
States, have insisted that developing
countries only share influenza viruses with the WHO GISN and not bilaterally
with others. Yet, contradictorily, the United States
has a massive military influenza virus collection program, but only
provides a very small percentage of the materials that it collects to
It is unclear if
and how viruses collected by the US
military in other countries would be covered by a WHO GISN material
transfer agreement because they are obtained and transferred outside
what is now-understood to be the WHO system.
If one WHO Member
State unilaterally amasses influenza viruses
without full participation in the WHO access and benefit sharing system
there is strong potential for the WHO system to be undermined.
Also undefined is
the legal status of a virus received by the WHO system; but not from
an approved lab of its country of origin - a situation that now frequently
occurs due to the activities of the US military virus collection system.
The US military system is active globally,
including at least 56 countries where it is collecting influenza viruses
(as of 2007). The system pulls in clinical specimens and locally isolated
viruses that are shipped to the United States. It provides some of
these viruses to the WHO GISN network, mainly through the US Centres
for Disease Control (CDC), a WHO Collaborating Centre in Atlanta, Georgia
(and part of the US health ministry), but keeps all specimens and viruses
for its own purposes.
The size and capacity
of the US military program
is dramatically expanding and has more than doubled in recent years.
In 2005, it was active in 30 countries and included three BSL-3 labs
and a total sample processing capacity of 9,000 specimens per year.
By 2007, the network was active in 65 countries and included eight BSL-3
labs and the capacity to process 18,000 samples annually.
The network is named
the US Department of Defense Global Emerging Infections Surveillance
& Response System ("DoD-GEIS"). A DoD-GEIS program called
the US Department of Defense Worldwide Influenza Surveillance Program
focuses specifically on flu viruses.
The military network
has "sentinel" sites around the globe, reported by US military
sources to include 128 or more locations. These are installations where
US military personnel
are based, as well as collaborating non-military sites that collect
samples from US personnel and local civilian populations.
In 2006-2007, the
system collected influenza viruses from developing countries including:
Belize, Guatemala, Honduras,
El Salvador, Nicaragua, Venezuela,
Colombia, Ecuador, Peru,
Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina.
-- Africa: Morocco, Libya,
Egypt, Eritrea, Djibouti,
Sudan, Uganda, Kenya,
Burundi, Gambia, Ghana,
Nigeria, and Cameroon.
-- Middle East:
Iraq, and Oman.
Asia: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan,
Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Afghanistan,
Pakistan, India, Nepal,
-- Southeast Asia/Oceania:
Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia,
Philippines, Indonesia, Papua
New Guinea, and Solomon Islands.
A US Air Force lab
at Brooks City Base in San
Antonio, Texas coordinates the system. In 2006 and 2007,
its systemwide budget was over $40 million per year. In the 2006-2007
flu year, the Texas lab alone processed 5,810 specimens from
persons across the globe suspected to have respiratory infections. Of
these, 2,444 tested positive for a respiratory virus, including 1121
positive for influenza virus. According to the US Department of Defense
(DOD), "All original specimens are archived and kept for requests
from [Department of Defense] partners or the CDC."
Another lab at a
US Navy facility in San Diego,
California processes an unknown number of additional
samples. Of note, the Navy lab systematically isolates flu viruses from
military personnel who become infected during port visits. Using this
unusual collection method, in 2007, it isolated seasonal influenza viruses
from countries including Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon
Islands after US Navy ships docked there and US sailors became infected
Including the Navy
lab and other facilities (see below), the military system handled an
overall total of approximately 8,000 influenza and other viral cultures
in 2007. Of these, only a small percentage are given to CDC. In 2006,
this number was 120 viral isolates (about 1.5%), meaning that over 98%
of the viruses collected by the US
military program do not enter the WHO system.
In addition to the
CDC, collected viruses (especially H5N1 viruses) are provided to US
Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at
in Frederick, Maryland.
USAMRIID is the historical home of the US
offensive biological weapons program (terminated in 1969), and is presently
the headquarters of the US
military's biological defense effort. Drawing on viruses collected by
the US military and WHO sources, as of 2007, USAMRIID
maintained a collection of thirty different H5N1 strains plus many other
flu types that it uses in research and provides to other US military labs.
According to the
program, the primary purpose of the virus collection system is to ensure
US military readiness: "The principal objective is to enable the
rapid discovery of novel strain mutations that could trigger a pandemic
and to monitor these strains for their ability to transmit and to cause
disease... the priority of the DoD is to maintain readiness and protect
the health of service-members and beneficiaries, the contributions from
the [San Antonio-based] surveillance program also benefit the greater
global health community."
Five overseas laboratories
operated by the US Department of Defense act as regional coordination
centres for the collection effort. The five labs are:
-- Naval Medical
Research Unit No. 2 (NAMRU-2) in Jakarta,
-- Naval Medical
Research Unit No. 3 (NAMRU-3) in Cairo,
-- Naval Medical
Research Centre Detachment (NMRCD) in Lima,
-- Armed Forces
Research Institute of Medical Sciences (AFRIMS) in Bangkok,
States Army Medical Research Unit-Kenya (USAMRU-K)
in Nairobi, Kenya.
With the exception
of NAMRU-2, which was recently closed by the Indonesian government,
each of the above labs works not only in the country in which it is
located; but also in nearby countries, where laboratory and personnel
detachments are sometimes placed.
NMRCD operates a
high containment (BSL-3) lab in Peru,
and coordinates virus collections in several South and Central American
countries and, for example, has staff in Guatemala. In 2007, it reported that
it is seeking to expand virus surveillance efforts in Ecuador, Bolivia,
Paraguay, and Uruguay.
AFRIMS in Bangkok
operates a BSL-3 lab and, in addition to work in Thailand,
maintains a facility in Nepal
and collects samples from other countries in the region. In total in
2007, AFRIMS collected over 1,000 respiratory samples from seven countries
in Southeast and South Asia.
NAMRU-3 in Cairo has at least BSL-3 capability and collects
human and animal influenza viruses. It is a WHO GISN H5 reference lab,
submitting viruses both to other US government labs as well as WHO
labs. NAMRU-3 maintains activities in many African, Middle Eastern,
and Asian countries, from Ghana
eastward all the way to Pakistan.
It states that in
2007, "From Egypt, 141 human specimens were received for influenza
A/H5N1 reference testing, and 26 specimens tested positive for H5N1.
H5 reference testing was performed on 459 animal specimens, with 92
positive for H5N1 from Afghanistan, Egypt,
From these H5N1 isolates, MANRU-3 deposited HA gene sequence information
for 74 strains in GenBank.
USAMRU-K in Nairobi
collects virus samples from hospitals and Kenyan military facilities
and says that it is developing collection capabilities through universities
in Uganda and Cameroon and the Nigerian defense
ministry. Flu viruses it collects are provided to the CDC and the US military.
Until the Indonesian
government closed it, NAMRU-2 in Jakarta
played a similar role, including coordinating US
laboratory detachments in Indonesia,
Cambodia and Laos. In 2007,
it says that it collected and tested more than 4,500 respiratory samples
in Indonesia alone.
It is unclear what will happen to NAMRU-2's activities outside of Indonesia now that the Jakarta laboratory has been closed.
Other US military BSL-3 labs in the network are located
in Germany and South Korea. The
DoD-GEIS network also collaborates with the US Defense Threat Reduction
Agency (DTRA), although the exact nature of the collaboration has not
been publicly described.
Despite the Pentagon's
claims that it has frequently contributed to WHO vaccine strain selections,
none of the negotiating texts or background documents made available
by WHO in the course of the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Inter-Governmental
Meeting have discussed the large US virus collection system that parallels
the GISN, much less explained the relationships between the two.
purpose of the US
military system does not wholly coincide with WHO's public health ends,
and its activities at times do not appear to be compatible with most
proposals for a revised WHO GISN virus and benefit sharing system.
The massive US military virus
collection system, which parallels the WHO system yet does not currently
operate under the same rules, creates an additional complication for
diplomats seeking an agreement on virus and benefit sharing. Its extent
and different purposes than the WHO system may also be of concern to
some countries, particularly because WHO system virus sharing is for
public health and not military purposes.
Efforts should be
made to ensure that all virus collection and transfers take place within
the WHO system, using a WHO material transfer agreement, and that virus
collections for purposes other than public health not be permitted.
(* Edward Hammond
is an independent researcher and an expert on patents and biological
resources. He contributed this article to SUNS.) +
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