OIE chief says H5N1 still has pandemic potential

Jan 16, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – Dr. Bernard Vallat, head of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), believes the H5N1 avian influenza virus still has the potential to cause a human flu pandemic, the OIE said today in an effort to clarify news reports of comments Vallat made last week.

At a meeting with reporters Jan 10, Vallat described the H5N1 virus as extremely stable and said the risk of a pandemic associated with it had been "overestimated" in the past, according to news service reports published the same day.

Vallat's reported comments drew criticism from preparedness proponents and infectious disease experts, including some quoted in a CIDRAP News article (see link below).

Today's OIE statement says Vallat's comments came at an informal meeting with reporters, during which he discussed OIE activities and reporters asked about the H5N1 situation. The statement does not specifically criticize any of the reports of Vallat's comments, but it says he made clear that the H5N1 virus still could evolve into a pandemic strain.

"Dr Vallat said—as he has said in the past—that although the H5N1 virus is extremely virulent, it has shown to be quite stable over the last few years and its epidemiologic behaviour remained the same from the beginning of the crisis in 2003," the OIE said.

"He added that this observed stable behaviour of the H5N1 strain of the virus does not allow ruling out the risk of a mutation into a new dangerous form for humans, thus becoming a potential candidate for an avian influenza pandemic," the statement continues.

Vallat also told reporters that no one can predict when or how the next flu pandemic will occur and that H5N1 is just one of many flu viruses that could spark a pandemic, according to the statement.

"Bird flu will always remain a risk, be it H5N1 or another [virus] and for that reason pandemic preparedness as well as permanent control of the pathogen at the animal source are important," the statement quotes Vallat as saying.

At the meeting, Vallat also reemphasized the need to strengthen the capability to detect and respond to emerging diseases in animals, especially those that can spread to humans, the OIE said.

"He regretted that such capacities were not in place at the very beginning of the H5N1 avian influenza crisis, which delayed the reaction of countries, especially the poorest ones, first hit in South East Asia," the statement said. "He welcomed today's much better preparedness of countries to detect and control the disease."

See also:

Jan 16 OIE statement

Jan 11 CIDRAP News story "OIE chief's downplaying of pandemic risk draws fire"

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