Saturday, December 24, 2005

Chinese bird flu transparency: two steps forward, one step back?

Maybe we spoke too soon. No, we definitely spoke too soon when we noted China's improving reputation for "transparency" on the bird flu front:
A senior World Health Organization official complained Friday that China has not shared with his agency any samples of a deadly bird flu virus strain from its dozens of outbreaks in poultry.

WHO's Asia-Pacific Director Shigeru Omi said that sharing samples of the H5N1 virus is crucial to diagnosing new cases, and to developing a vaccine that could prevent a possible pandemic in humans.
China's Ministry of Agriculture shared five samples collected from infected birds last year but has failed to provide any this year, Omi said.

"From the more than 31 reported outbreaks in animals from 2005, no (Chinese) viruses have been made available so far for the international community," Omi said. "Time is of the essence."

China's Ministry of Health agreed this week to give the WHO samples isolated from two of its six confirmed human cases of bird flu.

Jia Youling, director of the Chinese Agriculture Ministry's veterinary bureau, which has led China's efforts against bird flu, declined to respond to Omi's remarks. He referred questions to his ministry's press office, which did not return phone calls. (AP via Mercury News)
What is somewhat odd about this report, however, is that it was also reported this week that the Chinese had handed over some viral samples from recent human cases. Apparently the way to reconcile these reports is that they have handed over none of the poultry viruses.

Trying to unravel the genetic changes affecting the poultry panzootic in asia is critical to tracking the the virus and its pandemic potential.
Scientists have determined that bird flu strains in Vietnam and Thailand resemble each other, while a distinct second strain has affected birds in China and Indonesia.

A potential third strain may have affected birds and sickened at least one human in northeast China's Liaoning province, Omi said.

"The outcome of this battle in China has ramifications not only for the region but also for the entire world," he said. "Maybe in China there are two sub-strains, maybe more," he said. "We don't know."
Well maybe the Chinese know. It would be nice to share the knowledge, or if they don't have it, provide samples for others to generate.

This is not a question of withholding genetic sequence data, which apparently the Chinese have provided. The problem is connecting the sequence data with the biology--for example host range, virulence, etc. This cannot be done from the sequences alone, at least not yet. As we noted in another post, there can be complicated reasons for not sharing the actual virus--reasons related to commercial exploitation, fear of having one's "resource" appropriated by foreign laboratories or countries, national pride, etc. Whatever the reasons--and some of them no doubt have merit from the Chinese point of view--it is time to put them aside, perhaps with some explicit codicil to protect whatever concerns the Chinese have.

No one knows how much time we have to generate the information that will help the world cope with a possible pandemic. But the more time and the more heads and hands working on the problem the better off everyone will be.