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China shares bird flu samples, denies new strain report
posted by admin on 14/11/06

BEIJING (Reuters) - China agreed on Friday to share long-sought bird flu virus samples with international health authorities, after rejecting scientists' findings that a new, vaccine-resistant strain was circulating in the country.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said 20 virus samples were being sent to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, a WHO collaborating centre, raising hopes of a better understanding of how the H5N1 bird flu virus is changing.

"We are very encouraged by that. They are viruses from 2004 and 2005, and we will make follow-ups for the 2006 samples," Henk Bekedam, the WHO's China representative, told Reuters.

The decision comes after China rejected findings in a paper published last week by Hong Kong and U.S. scientists that said they had detected a new strain of H5N1 in the southern Chinese province of Fujian last year.

"The data cited in the article was unauthentic, and the research methodology was not based on science," Jia Youling, China's chief veterinary officer, told a news conference.

The paper published in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that identified the "Fujian strain" said it may have started outbreaks in Southeast Asia.

"In fact, there is no such thing as a new 'Fujian-like' virus variant at all," Jia said.

"It is utterly groundless to assert that the outbreak of bird flu in Southeast Asian countries was caused by avian influenza in China and there would be a new outbreak wave in the world."

The WHO, which says it is still studying the paper, said its understanding had been hampered by China's refusal to share bird flu samples.

But Jia said that when China co-operated in past, the samples had been misused.

"Four of the five virus samples we provided were used by foreign research institutes in an inappropriate way twice, encroaching upon intellectual property rights of Chinese research institutes," he said.

The WHO's Bekedam said the viruses were used in research that did not acknowledge that it was China's Ministry of Agriculture that identified the virus, in breach of scientific protocol.

"That happened twice, and I apologised on behalf of the WHO collaborating centre because that is bad behaviour among scientists," he said.


Chinese scientists also denied the paper's claims that its vaccines were ineffective against new strains, saying they were continually updating vaccines as the virus changed.

"We have developed new vaccines to control those variants," said Chen Hualan, director of China's National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory.

Jia added that China's national bird flu laboratory had been instructed by the Agriculture Ministry to follow any signs of mutation, amid fears the virus could change into a form that can pass easily between people, leading to a potential pandemic.

He also attacked the methodology and ethics of Guan Yi, one of the paper's authors.

Jia said the Fujian-like strain, which Guan said had emerged in March 2005, was actually the same as bird flu viruses found in Hunan in February 2004 in terms of genetic sequencing.

"Guan said he wanted to alert the world with the paper, but why didn't he report the markets with virus-carrying birds to the government if he truly believed in his findings?" Jia asked.

He said there were 10 confirmed poultry outbreaks in seven provinces of China this year, adding 95 percent of domestic birds had been vaccinated.

The WHO has said the Fujian strain has not shown a heightened danger to humans.

H5N1 has caused 21 human infections in China since late 2003, including 14 deaths. With the world's largest poultry population and millions of backyard birds, the country is seen as key to the fight against bird flu.

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