Saturday, November 19, 2005

Chinese viruses not available to other scientists

Helen Branswell of Canadian Press reports scientists are worried things could be happening with the H5N1 viruses in China, but the Chinese haven't shared any since the spring of 2004, 18 months. A lot can happen to a flu virus in 18 months.
Chinese authorities have not shared samples of H5N1 avian flu viruses with scientists outside the country since the spring of 2004, leaving influenza experts worried that the world has an incomplete picture of how the worrisome viruses are evolving.

With confirmation of human cases of H5N1 infection in China, the need to look at a range of viral samples or isolates from that country has taken on a heightened sense of urgency, officials say.
"The new outbreaks are coming hot and heavy now and we just don't know what's out there. We don't know if it's the same virus or different viruses. And we need to get that information," says Michael Perdue, a scientist with the World Health Organization's global influenza program.

"Thus far, we're in the dark."

The international agencies involved in trying to contain the spread of H5N1 have made a number of entreaties to China for virus samples and have received assurances from authorities there that viruses will be shared.

But the wait continues. (Helen Branswell, Canadian Press via 900chml)
The Chinese are sharing genetic sequences, apparently, but not the viral cultures themselves. The cultures are needed to study the biology of the virus, not just its genes, from which some biology can be inferred but not some important questions, like changes in virulence.

Branswell's story discusses some of the possible motives behind this, and they are interesting and by no means idiosyncratic to China. One is a scientist's desire to get as much scientific credit as possible from a "resource" that you have (the virus). Scientists everywhere are hesitant to share reagents if it means others will be able to scoop them, especially when those others have high power laboratories, many scientists and sophisticated equipment. As a practicing researcher, this has the ring of truth to it, as much as I hate to admit it. Scientsts are human beings and act like human beings.

But a second possible reason is especially revealing and should give everyone pause.
Another concern has been voiced by several countries affected by H5N1 outbreaks. They know part of the reason the developed countries want access to virus samples is to ensure that the seed strain for H5N1 vaccine is up-to-date enough that the vaccine would be protective.

That rankles because these countries further understand that should H5N1 spark a human pandemic, their people stand little chance of getting access to limited global supplies of vaccine.

"Some of the developing countries anticipate that they're going to be short-changed with that step," Lubroth admits.

"So to convince . . . the countries that we're honest brokers is not an easy process. And to get them to agree on a material transfer agreement (for viruses) doesn't happen overnight."
As I said, interesting.