Editors at The New England Journal of Medicine say they are investigating a letter about avian flu that its Chinese authors apparently tried to withdraw before publication.
The letter, signed by eight Beijing scientists, reports that the country's first avian flu case appeared in 2003 -- two years before the Chinese government admitted having any cases -- and that it was misdiagnosed as SARS.
The journal editors said that on Tuesday morning they received an e-mail message that appeared to be from the letter's authors, asking to withdraw the letter.
But it was too late to do so, and the authors could not be contacted by phone or e-mail, a journal spokeswoman said on Tuesday. It appeared in yesterday's issue.
"We do not yet have an explanation from the authors," the journal's editor in chief, Jeffrey Drazen, said in an e-mail message to the news media. The authors did not respond to messages from the New York Times.
In the letter, which detailed the genetics of the flu virus, the scientists said that a 24-year-old man who died in November 2003 and was thought to have SARS actually had H5N1 viruses similar to those found circulating in chickens in China in 2004.
SARS, which first broke out in Guangdong Province in 2002, killed 800 people out of the 8,000 known to have been infected worldwide before it was brought under control in 2003.
China did not announce that it had any avian flu deaths until last November.
Since then there have been 19 infections and 12 deaths in China, and worldwide bird flu has killed 130 in nine countries.
Initial attempts to hush up SARS and bird flu infections has led to widespread criticism of the Chinese government.
The H5N1-Virus was first discovered in poultry in 1996 in China.
The infection of the man in 2003 is not a surprise to observers since three human cases of bird flu were reported in Hong Kong after they returned from Fujian Province in February 2003.
The cause of their infection, which was eclipsed by the outbreak of SARS, was never determined.
The WHO has asked the Ministry of Health in Beijing for a clarification.
"We ask what was known, when and by whom," WHO spokesman Roy Wadia said.
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