Thursday, January 26, 2006

Another China sharing post (sigh)

I guess I should make a standard template post that WHO is again complaining China is not sharing viral samples from their poultry outbreaks with the international community. Because that's what WHO officials said again this week.
Negotiations continue between the World Health Organization and China over requests for the Chinese to share samples of H5N1 bird flu. International experts complain that China has not cooperated fully in the fight against the virus, and they fear this could hamper the global effort to prevent a pandemic.

For months, the World Health Organization has expressed frustration over China's failure to hand over tissue samples from animals that died of the H5N1 virus in the country in recent months. ( [Korea])
Bits and pieces have been shared, to be sure, and the Chinese Ministry of Health seems to be more forthcoming with the human isolates than the Ministry of Agriculture has been with the animal isolates (see posts here, here, here and here). The genetic sequences are not enough, as for the most part our knowledge is not sufficient to predict important biological properties like virulence, host range and transmissibility from this information alone.

The reasons for China's attitude seem to be a combination of national pride and desire to control a resource (the viral isolate) that might be useful to make a vaccine. But as WHO points out, these motives are misplaced:
Speaking in Beijing last month, Shigeru Omi, the WHO's top official for the Asia Pacific region, said it is essential that nations cooperate in the effort to develop vaccines and other prevention measures. He reminded the Chinese that they also have gained from the system of international cooperation.

"WHO provided [the] seed virus to all the manufacturers, international level manufacturers. This seed virus was derived from Vietnam," he said. "China received it. China benefited from this international collaboration."
Other nations with a bird flu problem have been forthcoming, with Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand freely sharing actual isolates. Only China has been recalcitrant, their claims to have cooperated by hosting conferences and sharing other information notwithstanding.
"It is to China's advantage to have these specimens considered, because if China is not handing over specimens or is not sharing their specimens, other countries could do it [not share information]," said [University of Michigan epidemiologist Arnold] Monto. "This could be dangerous in the long run to China because, with birds flying from place to place, with chickens being shipped from place to place, there's no telling where important virus variants may originate."
No international laws require China to supply these isolates, so the only recourse is continued dialog and "negotiation." Time for all concerned -- the Chinese, any researchers who use the isolates, WHO, other nations -- to act scrupulously and generously with credit and recognition to all concerned.

Because if a pandemic rolls down the tracks at all of us, national pride, authorship and licensing won't mean much.