China Has Withheld Samples of a Dangerous Flu Virus

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© Philippe Lopez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Health workers culling chickens in Hong Kong in 2014 following an outbreak of avian flu.

 

For over a year, the Chinese government has withheld lab samples of a rapidly evolving influenza virus from the United States — specimens needed to develop vaccines and treatments, according to federal health officials.

Despite persistent requests from government officials and research institutions, China has not provided samples of the dangerous virus, a type of bird flu called H7N9. In the past, such exchanges have been mostly routine under rules established by the World Health Organization.

Now, as the United States and China spar over trade, some scientists worry that the vital exchange of medical supplies and information could slow, hampering preparedness for the next biological threat.

The scenario is “unlike shortages in aluminum and soybeans,” said Dr. Michael Callahan, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School.

“Jeopardizing U.S. access to foreign pathogens and therapies to counter them undermines our nation’s ability to protect against infections which can spread globally within days.”

Experts concur that the world’s next global pandemic will likely come from a repeat offender: the flu. The H7N9 virus is one candidate.

Since taking root in China in 2013, the virus has spread through poultry farms, evolving into a highly pathogenic strain that can infect humans. It has killed 40 percent of its victims.

If this strain were to become highly contagious among humans, seasonal flu vaccines would provide little to no protection. Americans have virtually no immunity.

“Pandemic influenza spreads faster than anything else,” said Rick A. Bright, the director of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that oversees vaccine development. “There’s nothing to hold it back or slow it down. Every minute counts.”

Scientists at the Department of Agriculture have had such difficulty obtaining flu samples from China that they have stopped requesting them altogether, according to a government official who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

When the H7N9 virus first appeared in China, researchers say the Chinese government at first provided timely information. But communication has gradually worsened.

“Countries don’t own their viral samples any more than they own the birds in their skies,” said Andrew C. Weber, who oversaw biological defense programs at the Pentagon during the Obama administration.

“Given that this flu virus is a potential threat to humanity, not sharing it immediately with the global network of W.H.O. laboratories like C.D.C. is scandalous. Many could die needlessly if China denies international access to samples.”

“In a sense, China has made lemonade from lemons — converting the problem of global infectious disease threats into lifesaving and valuable commodities,” Dr. Callahan said.

And now, as the H7N9 virus evolves, United States authorities worry that the Chinese have obfuscated the scale and features of this outbreak.

The Chinese government has refused to share clinical data from infected patients, according to scientists, and claims to have all but eradicated H7N9 through a single poultry vaccination campaign.

“Influenza is going to do what it does best, which is mutate,” Dr. Kerr said.

Full articles: China Has Withheld Samples of a Dangerous Flu Virus (The New York Times)

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