Evidence exposes US' continued bio research in Indonesia despite ban
US naval surgeons operated on local patients aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy and transported three rabid dogs from West Sumatra — all without Indonesia's permission.
Following Russia's investigation into US biological research in Ukraine, similar concerns were raised around the world, particularly in Indonesia, which former US Ambassador Cameron Hume previously described as a "reservoir of emerging infectious diseases."
In April, the Indonesian news outlet Detik revealed a story regarding a clandestine US plan to gather human blood and rabid dog samples during the 2016 Pacific Partnership exercise in Padang, West Sumatra.
According to documents obtained by reporters, American naval surgeons performed operations on local patients onboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy and transported three rabid canines from West Sumatra without the consent of the Indonesian Health Ministry. Padang health officials also told Detik that the Americans sought to collect dengue fever virus samples from local mosquitos.
In this context, the NAMRU 2, a US naval bio laboratory that operated in a bustling district of Jakarta from 1970 to 2009 when it was outlawed by the Health Ministry for posing a "threat to Indonesia's sovereignty," cannot but be remembered.
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What is NAMRU 2?
NAMRU 2 was developed amid an outbreak of bubonic plague in Indonesia and dealt with a wide spectrum of pathogens, including HIV and those that cause malaria, TB, and dengue fever.
However, Siti Fadilah Supari, a cardiologist who served as health minister from 2004 to 2009, told Sputnik that US assistance in illness eradication was minimal.
"Although they focused on malaria and tuberculosis, the results for 40 years in Indonesia, were not significant," she said.
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The US-Indonesian agreement on the laboratory expired in 1980, and "they were stateless after that," Supari remarked.
"I only knew their lab is very closed. And the researchers were American Marines, all of whom had diplomatic immunity… We never knew what they were carrying in their diplomatic briefcases. There were also some researchers from Indonesia helping them," she explained to Sputnik.
The ex-minister was also concerned about the lack of equal participation of Indonesian workers in the project, as well as the risk of US officials transporting infected samples from Indonesia to the US for military study.
"It's time for the World to Change"
Supari noted in her best-selling book, "It's Time for the World to Change," that in the aftermath of the H5N1 bird flu outbreak, she objected to the forced practice of sharing local virus samples with WHO-linked authorities, which she saw as neither transparent nor fair.
NAMRU 2 diagnosed a batch of H5N1 infections in Indonesia in 2006 in its capacity as a WHO Collaborating Center. The Indonesian government requested that the Americans only give the samples to the WHO-affiliated US Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Several papers, however, revealed that the CDC shared the samples with a sequence database at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was responsible for developing the world's first nuclear bomb. This infuriated Indonesians, who were concerned that infectious diseases may be weaponized.
Supari, as a minister, paid a surprise visit to NAMRU 2 in 2008 and spoke to the press about the lab's lack of transparency and failure to share the results of its research with the Indonesian government.
How did a fire reveal the truth?
According to Henry, a journalist at an Indonesian news agency, NAMRU 2 nearly burned down around the time this tale was making national headlines.
Henry stated that he went to put out the fire. He noticed two foreign-looking men amid the pandemonium who were preventing the media from accessing the compound.
"It looked like the fire was at the administrative part of NAMRU, where all documents are kept. I didn’t pay much attention to this fact at the time, but in hindsight, it may look almost as if someone wanted to hide something," he said.
The Indonesian investigation into NAMRU 2 also ruffled feathers in Washington. In 2010, Julian Assange's Wikileaks website published thousands of US diplomatic cables, revealing that the US embassy in Jakarta issued hundreds of updates on NAMRU and its efforts to restore its reputation.
In 2008, the diplomatic mission and NAMRU management held a news conference in the lab as part of their "fight against misinformation."
Justifying biological labs
However, according to a report sent to the State Department by US Ambassador to Indonesia Cameron Hume, the Americans eventually concluded that "the greatest option for keeping NAMRU-2 in Indonesia is to convince key politicians of its continued relevance to both countries."
In the midst of the lab dispute in 2009, Hume issued another critical but unclassified memo to Washington, emphasizing the significance of maintaining biological research in Indonesia.
"Indonesia is… a reservoir of emerging infectious diseases including many of international concern. With densely populated communities living in close contact with livestock and new settlements encroaching on wildlife reservoirs, Indonesia creates ideal opportunities for new infectious diseases to emerge," he wrote.
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Supari's defiance became a major issue for the US. Most NAMRU-related memos acknowledged her by name. On June 12, 2009, American diplomats proposed that the United States step in to assist manage her by expanding health cooperation with Indonesia.
"If managed correctly, Supari could accept NAMRU if she is assured of our genuine interest in developing a new research laboratory model (bigger and more comprehensive than NAMRU), she could then be helpful on visa extensions for NAMRU personnel so that negotiations on the broader engagement can begin," the memo said.
Despite this, Supari was successful in closing NAMRU 2 with the help of Indonesia's senior diplomats and soldiers. She departed the company in 2009. Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih, her successor, apparently had contacts with NAMRU 2 in the past but chose not to enable the lab's research in Jakarta to resume officially.
Supari, on the other hand, believes that American biological research is still being conducted on Indonesian soil.