China said to be withholding H5N1 virus samples

Apr 16, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – While Indonesia has drawn the media spotlight for withholding H5N1 virus samples for several months, China has been withholding H5N1 samples from humans for much longer, according to a Canadian Press (CP) report published yesterday.

Keiji Fukuda of the World Health Organization said China has not shared any human H5N1 virus samples in about a year, according to the CP story by Helen Branswell. The country provided some H5N1 samples from birds in late 2006, the story said.

Researchers need samples of the virus to monitor its evolution and spread, test for resistance to antiviral drugs, and develop vaccines.

Indonesia revealed in early February that it had stopped sending H5N1 samples to the WHO to protest the use of the samples by drug companies to make vaccines priced out of Indonesia's reach. In late March, the government promised to resume sending the samples in return for a WHO pledge to develop new guidelines for sample sharing and an interim promise not to share samples with drug companies without the source country's approval.

China sent its latest shipment of human H5N1 isolates to a WHO-affiliated laboratory in the spring of 2006, according to the CP report. The newest sample in the shipment was gleaned from a patient in late 2005 or early 2006, the story said.

The report also said China in late 2006 provided the WHO with some H5N1 samples collected from birds, but they dated back to outbreaks that occurred a year earlier, in late 2005.

Fukuda told CP the WHO has been negotiating with the Chinese health and agriculture ministries and remained hopeful that the talks would lead to a system for timely sharing of H5N1 samples.

"We can sort of sit and try to hit countries over the head and say: 'You should do this, you should share viruses or whatever,' but it's really not so helpful," Fukuda said. "What is helpful is listening to what are the issues, trying to address those. And it's become clear that part of the issues have to do with making sure that the access to [pandemic] vaccines is more equitable."

Fukuda also said that China, while withholding virus samples, has shared a significant amount of H5N1 information generated by its labs and has deposited whole or partial genetic sequences of a number of H5N1 viruses in public databases, according to the story.

The CP report says access to vaccines may not be the reason for China's reluctance to provide virus samples, because China, unlike Indonesia, makes flu vaccines for birds and humans. A Chinese company, Sinovac, has reported good results in trials of an H5N1 vaccine for humans.

In other comments, Fukuda said the tone of discussions about the H5N1 problem is changing to reflect a growing realization that it is not an immediate emergency, as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) was, but potentially both an urgent and a long-term problem.

"It's not business as usual, but it's not like the house is on fire—it's somewhere in between," he told CP.

See also:

Mar 27 CIDRAP News story "WHO, Indonesia reach accord on virus sharing"

Sep 11, 2006, CIDRAP News story "Way cleared for China to share H5N1 samples"

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