Thursday, July 07, 2005

Chinese checkers

Getting serious about avian influenza in China means also assuring laboratory safety for labs handling serious pathogens like H5N1. But there is a fine line between the control needed for safety and just plain control. The Chinese may well have crossed that line.

The Scientist reports that a new set of rules has just been posted on the official Chinese Veterinary Drug Information Net along with this urgent notice:
"It has been discovered that a number of laboratories, academic units, and institutes are carrying out research on deadly pathogens without proper safety measures…To enforce the rules, the [Ministry of Agriculture] will regulate and investigate research and testing without permission, to stop unauthorized work."
This in effect makes the Animal Influenza Laboratory of Ministry of Agriculture in Harbin the primary lab to carry out diagnostics work on H5N1 in China and one of only three officially sanctioned to carry out research on the virus (the other two being the South China Agricultural University, and Yangzhou University Agricultural College).

But there are other highly competent H5N1 researchers in China, among them University of Hong Kong microbiologist Guan Yi, whose group just published the sequences of the Qinghai goose die-off in Nature (July 6). Yi also directs Guangdong's Joint Influenza Research Center at Shantou University. Under these rules he would have to send all his samples to Harbin.
"God help me," Guan said, sounding exasperated, "they are trying to close everyone's lab." He said he believes the new rules are an excuse for authorities to exert tighter control over the dissemination of lab results, and are not aimed at protecting the wider population from bird flu outbreaks that have dotted the country in recent months.


"I have the safest BL3 lab in Asia.… Shipping the samples to Harbin after I tell them it is an H5 virus is ridiculous," said Guan, adding that he already shares all his findings and data with the Ministry of Agriculture and the World Health Organization.
The Rules go beyond safety and extend to total control of scientific information on H5N1 from Chinese scientists.
Rule number four of the new act states that no other entity except for the Veterinary Bureau within the Ministry of Agriculture can disseminate information on animal diseases. The final rule warns that "legal action will be taken against a person who defies theses laws."

The Chinese Ministry of Health, plus six other ministries including the Ministry of Science and Technology Authority, Education Authority, and Health Authority were signatories to the rules. But Guan said he believes the main advocate for the rules is Jia Youling, a Ministry of Agriculture spokesman and director general of the Veterinary Bureau. Jia could not be reached for comment.
China lost face and the trust of the world's scientific and public health community in its cover-up of the SARS episode in 2003. It has been trying to win it back.

This is not the right way to do it. (Translation: How stupid can you get?).