Saturday, May 14, 2005

WHO protests (too much?)

On Thursday we reported advance word on today's Nature news article alleging that WHO was not receiving cooperation and needed samples of bird flu virus isolated from humans in Vietnam or viruses isolated from animals and in the possession of its UN sister agency, FAO.

Today WHO issued a press release saying the Nature article was misleading (hat tip Earl E. in comments to our post). We reproduce here WHO's entire press release, with a comment of our own, following.
Nature" magazine article on bird flu misleading

MANILA, 13 May 2005 -- An article published this week in the journal Nature has created certain misimpressions. The article, entitled "Refusal to Share' leaves agency struggling to monitor bird flu," states that "affected countries are failing, or refusing, to share their human H5N1 samples with WHO's influenza programme..."

In the opening paragraph, the story states that " . . . from dozens of patients who caught the deadly H5N1 strain this year, the WHO has managed to obtain just six samples." That is not correct. This year, Viet Nam, which has had 44 human avian influenza cases since December 2004, has provided well over 100 human clinical samples. What influenza experts have expressed concern about is the limited number of viruses derived from those samples. The yield of viruses has been very low for reasons yet to be elucidated.

There is no refusal to share human samples by Viet Nam or any country with avian influenza cases.

Further, in the Nature story, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is criticized for not sharing animal samples with WHO. Such criticism is not appropriate as FAO does not receive any animal virus samples; instead, FAO, in collaboration with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), relies on the joint FAO/OIE network of national and international reference laboratories for the handling of such samples. FAO and OIE continue to encourage this network to provide virus strain samples to WHO.

We regret the misimpressions caused by this story, some of which WHO staff contributed to.
A few things deserve comment. It is now not clear whether the problem is a failure to provide human samples or diffiuculty in isolating and culturing virus from them (this problem was alluded to in a recent post here). The bottom line is the same, but it clearly makes a difference what the reason is. However it is clear that Nature's reporting was largely accurate, at least as regards what it heard from some WHO staff, which the press release admits in the last sentence. Finally, the exoneration of FAO rings somewhat hollow. It sounds like spin designed to mollify an FAO angry about the revelation. FAO's angry? Tough shit.