Indonesia announced three more human deaths from bird flu Wednesday, a day after it agreed to resume sending virus samples to international researchers on condition they wouldn't be made freely available to commercial vaccine makers.
Indonesia, the nation hardest hit by the H5N1 bird flu virus, had stopped sharing samples with the World Health Organization because it feared its strain would be used to develop vaccines unaffordable for poor nations in the event of a pandemic.
"Now we have the right to directly face the companies to negotiate to get what we want," Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari said, adding Indonesia would resume sending viruses immediately. "We trust WHO will not violate our trust, because this is related to the WHO's credibility."
Indonesia had been sharply criticized for withholding its virus samples. International scientists said that without the latest specimens, they could not monitor the virus to see if it was mutating into a more dangerous form.
Underscoring the danger the virus poses to the country, three more people - including a 15-year-old boy - were confirmed to have died from the virus, officials said, bringing the number of fatalities in the country to at least 69.
Two victims lived on different parts of Java island, while the third died on Sumatra.
Bird flu has killed at least 169 people since it began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in 2003, according to WHO. It remains hard for people to catch, and most human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds.
But experts fear that if the virus changes into a form easily spreadable among people it could spark a pandemic that could kill millions in countries around the world.
The announcement by Supari and WHO's top flu official, Dr. David Heymann, that Indonesia will resume sharing viruses followed two days of meetings in Jakarta between them and health officials from 18 countries.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono urged the delegates Wednesday to agree on fairer ways to distribute anti-bird flu medicines and vaccines, saying that the poor countries currently worst affected by the virus were getting a bad deal.
"We need to gear the world's preparedness and response mechanism around a new paradigm, which puts equality between countries at the center of our defense strategies," he told the meeting, due to end Wednesday. "It is our duty to work together to ensure that a pandemic does not happen in our time."
For months, Supari has been demanding that WHO change its 50-year-old virus sharing system, in which it collects regular flu samples from all over the world and makes them available to vaccine makers and others.
She said Wednesday she stopped sending samples to "open the eyes of the world" to current inequalities.
"Only 10 percent of the world's population is concentrated in Europe and North America, yet that part of the world holds 90 percent of the production capacity for influenza vaccines," she told the delegates. "In the event of a crisis, the majority of developing countries would have no access to vaccines during, and possibly after, the first wave of a pandemic."
WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said under the new deal viruses would still be monitored the same way, but any company interested in using viruses for vaccine development would now be required to work directly with the country of origin to receive permission for use.
Indonesia's decision to withhold the virus samples had received support from some other poor nations, while some international experts said it had raised an important issue: the need for equal access to drugs and technologies.
The meeting is discussing several ways to ensure a fairer distribution of vaccines, among them, creating stockpiles of vaccines for use in poor countries and transferring technology so they can produce their own.
Indonesia, the world's fourth-most-populous country, is seen as a potential hotspot for a pandemic strain of bird flu to emerge because of its high density of people and chickens.
The sprawling nation has been criticized for failing to take the threat of the virus seriously, but the U.N.'s top bird flu official praised the country's efforts when he last visited in February.
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