WHO catalogs H5N1 viruses, launches tracking system

Editor's note: This story was revised on Jan 23 to correct errors regarding the numbers of clinical specimens and H5N1 viruses submitted by Indonesia to the World Health Organization in 2007.

Jan 22, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – Countries affected by H5N1 avian influenza have sent material containing 734 H5N1 virus isolates to the World Health Organization (WHO) over the past 5 years, and from now on the public will be able to track particular isolates that have been submitted and what is being done with them, according to the WHO.

An online chart published by the WHO yesterday shows that countries submitted 8,763 samples from humans and animals from 2003 through 2007, and 734 H5N1 viruses were isolated from those samples. The WHO needs the isolates so it can monitor the virus's evolution, potential for human transmissibility, and susceptibility to antiviral drugs.

Vietnam contributed the most H5N1 isolates—375, derived from 1,199 samples. But Indonesia provided the second most: 171 isolates derived from 4,774 submitted samples. This despite the fact that the country stopped sending H5N1 samples for several months last year because of concern that vaccines derived from such samples are too expensive for developing countries.

In 2007 Indonesia sent the WHO 65 clinical samples, from which 13 viruses were isolated, the WHO chart shows. The country had withheld H5N1 samples from the WHO for about 5 months starting at the beginning of the year, according to previous reports.

Tracking system announced
On the heels of the report on H5N1 specimens submitted, the WHO today unveiled an online system to provide information on H5N1 specimens shared with the WHO through its Global Influenza Surveillance Network. The system permits anyone to search for particular isolates by date of submission, source country, host species, and several other variables. The system provides a page of detailed information for each isolate, including a list of all the laboratories to which the virus has been distributed, including pharmaceutical companies.

The WHO describes the current system as an interim version. At this point it contains most of the viruses and clinical specimens that have been submitted to the WHO since Nov 24, 2007, plus all H5N1 viruses that have been developed into vaccine viruses, according to a WHO statement. Information on the remaining viruses submitted since Nov 24 is being added to the system.

Both the tracking system and the country-by-country report are results, at least in part, of Indonesia's concerns about the fairness and openness of the WHO system for the sharing, monitoring, and use of influenza viruses.

A WHO statement today said the tracking system was developed following the intergovernmental meeting on flu virus sharing that was held Nov 21-23 in Geneva. At the meeting, a WHO working group tried unsuccessfully to resolve Indonesia's concerns about sending H5N1 specimens to the WHO. The country pushed for rules forbidding the commercial use of H5N1 samples, such as for vaccine development, without the source country's permission. But no agreement was reached.

The November meeting and other discussions in 2007 were held in response to a resolution passed at the WHO's World Health Assembly last May. The resolution called on the WHO director-general to come up with a system for equitable sharing of the benefits of flu-virus sharing, to set up an international stockpile of vaccines for H5N1 and other potential pandemic viruses, and to revise the "terms of reference" for international sharing of flu viruses.

Viruses chosen for vaccines
The WHO chart of H5N1 viruses submitted in the past 5 years says 13 isolates were selected for development into vaccines. So far, eight engineered viruses derived from these isolates, "suitable for vaccine development and production, are available for distribution," the WHO reports.

The agency says 292 institutions have received one or more copies of the eight engineered viruses, and 46 institutions have received "wild-type" vaccine viruses.

Numerous other countries besides Vietnam and Indonesia have submitted samples that yielded H5N1 isolates over the years, according to the WHO. For example, Hong Kong submitted 380 specimens that yielded 4 isolates, China (other than Hong Kong) submitted 26 samples with 22 isolates, Egypt sent 758 specimens with 26 isolates, and Turkey provided 335 specimens with 6 isolates.

See also:

WHO's chart of H5N1 virus specimens and isolates submitted by countries

WHO tracking system search page

Resolution passed at WHO's World Health Assembly in May 2007

Nov 26, 2007, CIDRAP News story about outcome of November 2007 Geneva meeting on virus sharing

May 23, 2007, CIDRAP News story about World Health Assembly resolution

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