HONG KONG (Reuters) - China has not shared any human H5N1 bird flu samples with WHO-accredited laboratories for over a year, sparking renewed fears that it may be frustrating efforts to track changes in the virus and find ways to fight it.
But Henk Bekedam, WHO’s representative in China, said the Chinese had shared their scientific analyses of virus samples taken from human victims in the past year, and there was no evidence the H5N1 had mutated significantly in a dangerous way.
“The whole notion about urgency (of sharing) is still there ... but at the same time, the virus is not changing into something that is easily transmissible between humans,” he said.
Although the H5N1 remains primarily a bird disease and has killed only 170 people worldwide since late 2003, experts fear it will mutate into a form that can pass easily among humans, sparking a pandemic that could kill millions.
China last shared human H5N1 samples with WHO collaborating laboratories in April 2006 and the country has since reported five more human infections.
The WHO had asked a few times for samples of three of these, Bekedam said, and he was confident they would be shipped soon.
On animal H5N1 samples, Bekedam said WHO was trying to get Beijing to share viruses that were more recent.
China’s Ministry of Agriculture last shipped animal H5N1 samples to WHO laboratories in November 2006, but these were viruses isolated in 2004 and 2005.
“We are negotiating if we can get viruses from 2006 and we hope we would be getting them soon,” Bekedam said.
Viruses change constantly and fast, and in the case of the H5N1, experts stress the importance of timely sharing of samples to check if it has developed resistance to drugs or if it has become more transmissible among people.
But those calls are not generally observed and the WHO is not empowered to oblige any government to share.
Indonesia and Thailand have complained that drug companies were using samples from developing countries to make expensive vaccines that these same nations would be unable to afford.
The issue so incensed Jakarta that it stopped sharing samples this year and only promised to resume after the WHO agreed in late March to restrict drug company access to virus samples if they were intended for commercial use.
In China’s case, the contention is not so much about drug access as the country has homegrown laboratories researching their own H5N1 vaccines. Chinese scientists, like their counterparts elsewhere, are possessive about their samples.
After sending samples to the WHO in 2004, Chinese scientists discovered their analyses and work had been published in a journal by foreign experts, who omitted to give the Chinese any credit. The foreign researchers have since apologized.
Margaret Chan, Hong Kong’s former top health official who took over as WHO chief in January, has pledged repeatedly to be firm with Beijing, saying her Chinese nationality would give her an edge in getting China to share samples.