July 7, 2008

 

Indonesia seeks to shut US Navy lab researching bird flu
 
 

Indonesia is seeking to shut down a US facility for bird flu research, alleging that the centre is a front for spying activities.

 

Indonesia suspended negotiations with the US over the fate of Naval Medical Research Unit No. 2 last month after senior politicians said the centre did not benefit Indonesia and could be a cover for spying.

 

The US 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 has been in Indonesia's capital Jakarta since 1970 and is used to study tropical diseases, including malaria, dengue fever and bird 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.

 

Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono said last month that his ministry recommended to President Susilo Bambang that the lab be closed, saying its secretive operations may pose a threat to Indonesia's security. The Health Ministry endorsed the proposal.

 

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 the US Embassy said it was not aware of any date for talks to resume.

 

In the past two years when bird flu was raging in Indonesia, officials refused to share virus samples with foreign researchers, fearing the samples would be used to make expensive vaccines that Indonesians cannot afford. In a previously published book, the country's health minister also worries that such virus samples could be developed into biological weapons that could be used against Indonesia some day.

 

The country currently only shares samples with the WHO.

 

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, the agency's figures show.

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