China resumes sending human H5N1 samples

May 25, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Some of the H5N1 avian flu virus samples from human cases that China has promised to send to a World Health Organization (WHO) laboratory have arrived in the United States, apparently ending an almost year-long lapse in sample sharing.

A WHO official said two of three promised samples have been sent by China's health ministry and are awaiting customs clearance, the Associated Press (AP) reported today. Joanna Brent, a spokesperson in the WHO's Beijing office, said the specimens are from a 2006 case from Xinjiang province in far western China and a 2007 case from Fujian province in the south.

Publicity about China's slowness in sharing H5N1 samples was triggered by a Canadian Press report in April. The story revealed that Indonesia wasn't the only country dragging its feet about sharing human H5N1 samples with the international community.

Indonesia's reluctance has stemmed from its concern that the country couldn't afford commercial vaccines derived from the use of its H5N1 strains. The reasons for China's reluctance have been less clear, but Chinese officials have sometimes complained about how foreign researchers used samples gathered form birds in China. Last November, for example, China complained that investigators used such specimens to conduct and publish studies without properly crediting the country's contribution.

Brent said a third sample China promised—from a 24-year-old soldier who died in 2003—was not part of the shipment, because sample-sharing procedures involving the Chinese military are extremely complex, the AP reported. The soldier's case was reported in a June 2006 New England Journal of Medicine article after new tests determined he had died of an H5N1 infection.

China had previously sent six human H5N1 virus samples to WHO laboratories, said the AP report, which cited Chinese state media reports: two in December 2005 and four in May 2006. Since then, China has reported six new human cases, including that of the soldier, according to the WHO list of confirmed H5N1 cases.

In March 2006, China promised to send 20 veterinary H5N1 samples to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for analysis, but their arrival was delayed for several months because of logistical problems. Christine Pearson, a CDC spokesperson, told CIDRAP News today that the lab did receive the promised specimens.

The WHO has coordinated the international sharing of flu virus samples for more than 50 years. Samples of both seasonal flu viruses and novel strains like H5N1 are used to monitor viral evolution and drug resistance and to develop vaccines.

At the annual World Health Assembly, which ended 2 days ago, the WHO approved a resolution to establish an international stockpile of pandemic vaccines and create a working group to draw up new rules for the sharing of flu viruses by WHO collaborating centers and reference laboratories.

In other avian flu news, health officials in Vietnam have confirmed the country's first H5N1 case since 2005, in a 30-year-old farmer who got sick after he helped slaughter chickens for a wedding.

A doctor from the National Institute of Epidemiology in Hanoi told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that two tests on the man were positive for the H5N1 virus. The deputy head of the health ministry's preventive healthcare department told the state-run Vietnam News Agency that the man's test results were confirmed, but the health ministry has not "directly confirmed" the case, the AFP report said today.

The man, from Vinh Phuc province, is in critical condition in a Hanoi hospital, AFP reported.

Meanwhile, Pakistan and Vietnam reported additional outbreaks of H5N1 in poultry today. Pakistani officials reported outbreaks at two more poultry farms in Islamabad, bringing the number of outbreaks this week to five, AFP reported today. Authorities in Vietnam reported an outbreak among ducks at a farm in the northern port city of Haiphong, as well as several outbreaks among ducks and chickens at private farms in Bac Giang, a northern province, the AP reported today.

The virus reemerged in both countries recently after earlier outbreaks this year. Pakistan's last outbreak was in April, and Vietnam had reported a rash of outbreaks that began in late December 2006.

See also:

Apr 16 CIDRAP News article "China said to be withholding H5N1 virus samples"

Nov 10, 2006, CIDRAP News story "Chinese promise H5N1 samples, deny claim of new strain"

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