Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Chinese antiviral practice is chickenfeed

Chinese authorities are denying they advocated or encouraged the practice of feeding the antiviral drug amantadine in poultry flocks as a preventive for avian flu.
Agriculture Ministry spokesman Xu Shixin, quoted by the government-run China Daily newspaper, denied a report by The Washington Post that officials encouraged farmers to give the drug amantadine to millions of chickens in their drinking water in the late 1990s to suppress bird-flu outbreaks, the China Daily said.

The report didn't say when or how widely the amantadine was misused or whether farmers still use it. Phone calls to the health and agriculture ministries yesterday weren't answered.

"The report was groundless," Xu was quoted as saying.
Groundless? I rather doubt it. I don't know if the government encouraged it or just looked the other way, but I'm fairly confident it was one or the other. The Chinese authorities are lying.

Avian influenza A/H5N1 in China and southeast asia is reported to be resistant to amantadine, but circulating strains outside this area are sensitive (see Henry Niman's interesting post on this issue here). The role that the practice played in this resistance is unknown. Influenza A readily and rapidly develops resistance to amantadine, often after only two to three days of treatment. It is an empirical question the geographic extent of resistance now and its source. But the policy issue is quite clear. This is an impermissible and irresponsible practice and the Chinese authorities should have known better. It probably doesn't even work to protect poultry.

But here's the catch. The US has been doing this with antibiotics of medical importance in animal feed for decades and refuses to condemn or stop it (see a recent post about it here). Whether or not the Chinese practice will have clinical significance in the future, the US practice has impact now. As someone once said, when you point your finger at someone, three fingers are pointing back at you. Whatever one thinks about the Chinese in this case, it goes triple for the US.