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Ciptapangan Visitor
WHO tells bird flu scientists to stop squabbling
posted by admin on 10/11/06

China's Ministry of Agriculture and two scientists will hold a news conference on Friday in Beijing to discuss the PNAS paper.

HONG KONG (Reuters) - The World Health Organisation has urged Chinese and foreign scientists to stop squabbling and share information to figure out how to combat a new H5N1 bird flu virus strain that is spreading unchecked in poultry flocks.

Henk Bekedam, WHO's representative for China, said that instead of battling it out in the media, scientists from the Chinese government, Hong Kong and elsewhere should sit down and study the details.

"This is an ideal opportunity to get a better idea what is happening in China and assess strategies that have been effective and develop even more targeted strategies if there is a need," he said.

Chinese officials and scientists rejected a paper published last week by Hong Kong and U.S. scientists in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) which said a new vaccine-resistant "Fujian-like" H5N1 strain had emerged in poultry in China and may spread across Asia and Europe.

In an interview with Chinese media published on Tuesday, two Chinese scientists fired strongly worded rebuttals, saying there was "no scientific basis" for the views and conclusions in the paper.

They accused the foreign researchers of "unscientific methods" and said China's vaccination programme was effective.

But they gave no details or data, something that Bekedam says is badly wanting.

"Right or wrong, this goes to a level of details that you have to talk to scientists, people who look at gene sequencing and give us clues as to what is happening," he told Reuters.

"If viruses are substantially different, then it is very important for us to make some re-adjustment in the diagnostics, to consider if we might need to come up with a new vaccine."

NO SURPRISE

H5N1 remains a disease in birds although it has killed over 150 people since late 2003. However, experts fear it could start a pandemic and kill millions if it ever mutates to transmit efficiently among people. Research so far into the Fujian strain shows it poses no heightened danger to people.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) issued a statement saying the U.S. report "does not come as a surprise" in showing that H5N1 is changing, and called for continued vigilance.

"(FAO and OIE) warn that with new antigens developing continually in avian influenza viruses, vaccines currently in use for poultry need to be assessed regularly," they said.

The two bodies urged scientists to share any findings about changes to the virus.

"FAO, the OIE and a myriad of scientific experts on avian influenza have repeatedly called upon scientists around the world to share their findings and virus strains in a timely and transparent fashion," they said.

China's Ministry of Agriculture and two scientists will hold a news conference on Friday in Beijing to discuss the PNAS paper.

China's position in the saga so far has been inconsistent, and contradictory statements made by senior Chinese government officials have led to confusion.

Its health ministry previously shared H5N1 samples isolated from six victims with WHO, and gene sequencing showed they were infected with the Fujian strain in 2005 and 2006.

But after the paper was published, China's foreign ministry said the country had found no evidence of the Fujian strain. One of the Chinese scientists also rejected that the strain was responsible for recent human infections in China.

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