IN A move that is hardly surprising, China has denied the emergence of a new bird flu strain — Fujian-like — that was reported very recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The new strain, first identified in March last year by researchers working at the University of Hong Kong and St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, Tennessee, U.S., has been found mainly in birds and in a few cases in humans as well.
The strain first found in Fujian province in China, and hence named Fujian-like, has been found to have spread to six other provinces in southern China from where samples were collected. Incidentally, it has already crossed borders and is found in Hong Kong, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand.
What is of grave concern is not just the emergence of a new strain but the relative speed at which the strain emerged and spread to neighbouring countries. This makes a third wave of bird flu spreading across the globe highly possible.
Though the mechanism responsible for the emergence is not clearly understood, the researchers say the compulsory vaccination of poultry is a possible reason. Compulsory vaccination in China started in September last.
By not being designed to fully protect against Fujian-like strain, the vaccination indirectly helped the emergence of this strain.
According to the researchers, the percentage of the new strain increased "dramatically" from October last year. During the period April-June this year, the predominance shot up to reach 95 per cent.
The predominance reflects the replacement of other strains by the Fujian-like strain.
The researchers also found five human cases where H5N1 viruses from different provinces in China belonged to Fujian-like strain and were similar to those found in poultry.
Though no concrete evidence of virulence is available, New Scientist (October 30, 2006) reports that the new strain was responsible for one human death in Thailand and five humans getting infected in China. "As far as I know all 20 human cases recognized since November 2005 were caused by this virus," Y. Gaun one of the authors was quoted as saying in New Scientist.
More than the emergence of the new strain within a very short period and quick spread to many provinces within China and neighbouring countries, it is the denial of its existence by the Chinese Government that is worrying.
"Up to now, the bird flu viruses selected from the south share a high uniformity," Liu Jianchao, Foreign Ministry spokesman told a press conference in Beijing after the findings in the journal became widely known. "There has been no marked change in the biological characteristics of the organisms."
It is not the first time that the Chinese Government has tried to conceal vital information, be it in the case of SARS or bird flu.
According to information provided by the Chinese Government, the first human death from bird flu was in November last year. But most people doubted this. A correspondence published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in June this year by researchers working in laboratories in China confirmed what many had long suspected.
First human death
The first human death was not in November last year, as the Government had claimed, but in November 2003, the researchers pointed out.
The researchers clearly pointed out that the 24-year-old man who died in November 2003 tested negative for SARS; genetically the virus isolated from the man was closely related to H5N1 viruses isolated from chickens.
Even as this information was in the process of getting published in the journal, the Government tried its last bid at a cover-up. A bogus email was sent in the name of the lead author Wu-Chun Cao to the journal asking it to not publish the findings.
According to New Scientist (June 26, 2006), Cao had told the NEJM that he had never sent the email!
Pushed to a corner, the Chinese Government had to officially admit that the first case was indeed in November 2003 and not in November last year. And soon China enforced severe restrictions on investigation and reporting of suspected cases of bird flu. China's reluctance to become transparent has come in for severe criticism.
"China's lack of transparency... is making it difficult to determine how the deadly virus is mutating and spreading," a leading WHO official was quoted as saying in New Scientist (November 3, 2006).
China has not shared gene sequence data of the 2005 bird flu virus.
More evidence now points to China being the "epicenter" for H5N1 bird flu virus. A paper published in the PNAS journal (February 21, 2006) states "... finding supports the "influenza epicenter" hypothesis, which argues that southern China is the epicenter from which [H5N1] influenza pandemics emerge."
It also said that H5N1 virus has been circulating in Chinese poultry for over a decade and introduced into Vietnam in 2001, 2003 and 2005.
More transparency is needed if bird flu has to be contained.
That indeed is a tall order considering China's unwillingness to be open and do the needful to control it in its backyard. (from www.hindu.com)