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China shares bird flu samples with global researchers

BEIJING—After more than a year of international pressure, China acquiesced Friday to demands that it share samples of avian influenza virus with global health authorities but rejected a report that a new vaccine-resistant strain of the disease is spreading.

China provided samples from bird flu outbreaks in 2004 and 2005 but didn't offer samples from outbreaks this year, when the variant reportedly has flourished. The nation's chief veterinarian, Jia Youling, said 20 samples had been delivered to the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a research partner with the World Health Organization.

At a news conference, Jia, a lead spokesman for China on bird flu issues, made little effort to assuage tensions between his nation's scientists and global health experts.

He heaped scorn on a Hong Kong researcher who alleged last month that a new variant of the deadly H5N1 virus had emerged in Fujian province and spread to Southeast Asia, and labeled as "irresponsible" an earlier CDC proposal for ending a deadlock over providing the virus samples.

"There is no such new `Fujian-like' variant at all. It is utterly groundless to assert that the outbreak of bird flu in Southeast Asia was caused by avian influenza in China," Jia said.

The harsh words reflected resentment in China at what it contends is a lack of acknowledgement of its successful efforts to identify earlier strains of the virus.

They also underscored tensions over whether China conceals information about outbreaks that could threaten the globe. In late 2002, China initially covered up an epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which eventually killed more than 770 people worldwide.

The World Health Organization's China representative, Henk Bekedam, said he was "very encouraged" that China had offered the bird-flu virus samples, and would "follow up instantly" to press for samples isolated this year.

"Viruses do change, and we need to monitor the change," Bekedam said.

Global health workers require updated virus samples to prepare effective vaccines as new strains of disease emerge.

Pressure on China mounted last week when the journal U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study by scientists in Hong Kong and the United States reporting that a new bird-flu variant was detected in March 2005, then spread across six Chinese provinces and regions and to Hong Kong, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand.

The journal says current vaccines aren't as effective against the new strain.

Chen Hualan, the head of China's bird-flu reference laboratory, said the charge wasn't true and that existing vaccines continued to contain the disease.

Bird flu largely has fallen out of the headlines because it hasn't mutated into a strain that passes easily among humans. U.N. experts said last year that bird flu threatened to become a global pandemic that could kill millions of people.

Deaths from avian flu remain contained. It's killed 74 people worldwide so far this year, up from 42 in 2005 and 32 in 2004.

Frictions between China and foreign researchers soared after two past cases in which foreign scientists received Chinese viral samples and later published articles failing to acknowledge that China was the first to isolate and identify the viruses.

China and the CDC sparred over a different issue earlier this year: how to transport virus samples. Jia said U.S. scientists had suggested that samples of bird flu viruses be labeled as "samples for testing" rather than "highly virulent" material, which requires stiffer precautions.

"We deem it irresponsible either for China or for other countries to say those viruses are not highly virulent," Jia said.

The CDC couldn't be reached immediately for comment.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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