Wednesday, November 23, 2005

China syndrome

China has announced a third death from bird flu even as unconfirmed reports are circulating of hundreds of unannounced cases. Unofficial and unsourced reports from the expatriate Boxun News have been around for some months. What makes this instance different is that it is being corroborated by a visiting Japanese virologist, Dr. Masato Tashiro. Tashiro is described by the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine (via ProMed but also discussed extensively on CurEvents) as a WHO consultant. As we noted in Comments a day or so ago, there is a scientist of that name at the Division of Respiratory Viral Diseases and SARS, Department of Virology, Special Pathogens Laboratory, National Institute of Infectious Diseases, in Tokyo.

Tashiro reported at a colleague's retirement party that "a reliable source" had told him in a recent visit to Hunan on behalf of WHO to look into bird flu there that more than 300 deaths had occurred but were systematically covered up by Chinese authorities.
Dr. Masato gave his lecture in the University of Marburg Clinic before some the most outstanding virologists in the world and shocked the meeting with his unauthorized data [report] from inside China.

The Japanese virologist [said he] firmly believes in the reliability of the source and its data. The secrecy of the Peking government is still causing concern as it was at the beginning of the SARS epidemic disease, complained Tashiro. At least 5 medical co-workers who should be reporting on the situation in the provinces were arrested, and [other] publication-willing researchers were threatened with punishments [he said]. (Frankfurter Allgemeine via Promed).
Needless to say this is both a serious charge and a serious situation, if true. We have held off on reporting this hoping some clarification would materialize, but none has. Even if this turns out to be untrue, the plausibility of the idea is a problem of China's own making. Despite repeated claims of transparency, words and actions do not always match up. It will be hard to convince many observers there arren't some grounds for this.

Unfortunately, it is not just a matter of China's reputation. The substance of the matter is of some importance. WHO should immediately request another visit by an international team. While this is no guarantee, it will put pressure on Chinese authorities and is one of the few things the world community can do.