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Bird-Flu Samples Sought
posted by admin on 06/09/06

WHO Seeks Data From China to Study Development of Virus

BEIJING -- China acknowledged it hasn't given the World Health Organization any bird-flu samples taken from poultry since 2004, blaming the long delay on talks over the protocol for how to hand over the virus to international labs.

"When viral strains cross international borders, special protocols are needed and we are working to finish them," Li Jinxiang, vice director of the Ministry of Agriculture's veterinary department, said yesterday.

International scientists want the bird-flu samples from poultry to study the development of the H5N1 virus that causes avian flu and to help make drugs and vaccines to fight the disease. The samples also are key to tracking any changes that might occur that result in making bird flu easy to catch from human-to-human contact. Such a transformation could potentially turn avian flu into a pandemic.

Since 2003, 141 people have died from avian flu, according to the World Health Organization. Most, if not all of them, had contact with infected birds.

In March, Beijing promised to hand over poultry samples to the WHO. China has shared strains of the bird-flu virus found in humans, but hasn't shared any samples taken from poultry since 2004. During that year, it provided samples from five birds.

"There are no real logistical reasons why the [poultry] virus can't be shared," said Julie Hall, coordinator for the WHO Epidemic Alert and Response Team in Beijing. "The Ministry of Health regularly shares [the human] H5N1 with us. The logistics are there to transport these safely and quickly."

Mr. Li said that while the Ministry of Agriculture hasn't shared samples from poultry, it has shared the results of laboratory tests, including genetic information, with international agencies.

Critics say that isn't enough. They accuse the Ministry of Agriculture of dragging its feet in order to protect Chinese scientists who are trying to come up with a vaccine or cure and who could lose their competitive edge if that information was made widely available. The Chinese also are concerned about gaining recognition for their work as well as protecting their intellectual property rights -- issues the WHO has faced with researchers from other countries that have nonetheless shared samples.

While acknowledging these concerns, Ms. Hall said the virus still hasn't been shared, and "we continue to wish to engage the Ministry of Agriculture on these issues, resolve them or put them in the context of global health concerns."

The WHO itself is under fire by some scientists who say it isn't being transparent enough with information about the virus. Advocates for opening up the WHO's research database, which is now restricted, say that lack of information is slowing the search for a cure.

Mr. Li said China vaccinated nearly five billion poultry in the first six months of this year, and that authorities were monitoring them for any signs of resistance to vaccines. He said there were some problems reaching more remote parts of China for vaccinations, and that cross-contamination with wild birds continues to cause outbreaks.

Write to Shai Oster at

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