Wednesday, May 11, 2005

It's serious, Klaus

In a news story to appear in tomorrow's Nature (May 12), it is reported WHO has received no samples of bird flu virus (influenza A/H5N1) from poultry for close to eight months. We have been reporting here the dozens of human cases, primarily in Vietnam but also Cambodia (see left sidebar for links to many posts), but of those, only six samples capable of producing sequence data have been obtained by WHO, and of those six, several have shown mutational change of concern. WHO's UN sister agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has not obtained animal samples for months either, and according to WHO, hasn't been sharing what they have, so WHO is trying to obtain samples independently in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Knowledge of the genetic make-up of circulating virus provides a critical warning sign regarding an impending pandemic. The countries involved have resource and facility limitations but also may wish to control information because of impact on trade and tourism. We recently posted on the testing problem and suggested pressure or incentives be applied to increase cooperation.

Nature reports Vietnam may ship a large number of samples to the WHO flu center at CDC sometime soon. It's a start but it hasn't happened yet. The situation is urgent. WHO needs to get it in gear.
Several of the six H5N1 isolates contain a mutated form of the virus, but with so few samples to work on, it is impossible to judge how worried to be, says Klaus Stöhr, coordinator of the WHO's flu programme. "It's as if you hear a noise in your car engine, but you keep driving, not knowing whether it's serious."
Memo to Klaus: It's serious.