China withholding avian flu samples

GOOD PARTNER::The CDC has provided the US with samples from last year’s case of a patient who contracted a mutated form of the H7N9 virus that was resistant to drugs

By Wu Liang-yi, Lin CHIA-NAN and Sherry Hsiao  /  Staff reporters, with staff writer

Mon, Sep 03, 2018 - Page 1

China has refused requests from the US and other fellow WHO members for more than a year to provide lab samples from its outbreak of H7N9 avian influenza last year, in contravention of the organization’s regulations, while non-member Taiwan has shared its sole mutated strain of the H7N9 virus with researchers in the US.

WHO regulations stipulate that member states should provide samples and information about diseases that could become pandemic, but media reports say Beijing has been refusing repeated requests made by the US and others, even though this particular strain has killed 40 percent of the people who contracted it, the New York Times reported on Monday last week.

The Times said some US scientists are worried that US-China trade tensions could slow the exchange of medical supplies and information, thereby impeding efforts to prepare for potential biological threats.

At least four US research institutions have been relying on a small group of H7N9 samples from cases in Taiwan and Hong Kong, the newspaper said.

The H7N9 avian influenza “had not previously been seen in either animals or people until it was found in March 2013 in China,” the WHO says on its Web site.

Since then there have been at least six epidemic waves of human infection and hundreds of deaths.

The samples that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have been sharing with the US come from a 69-year-old Taiwanese businessman who in February last year was diagnosed with H7N9 after returning from China and later died.

What made his case different was that an analysis of the H7N9 strain he had contracted showed that a mutation had developed, the CDC said at the time.

The mutated virus was highly pathogenic in birds, and resistant to oseltamivir, zanamivir and other antiviral medications, it said.

“We believe that providing this information to the world is very important, thus [we] released it on the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data Web site,” CDC Deputy Director-General Philip Lo (羅一鈞) said on Saturday.

A sample of the virus strain is still stored at the agency’s biological material storage facility, Lo added.

This was a good example of cooperation between Taiwan and the US, Lo said.

However, the sample Taiwan provided was not enough to develop a vaccine, so more samples are needed to create a vaccine suitable for humans, he said.

The mutated H7N9 virus is a level-three biohazard, the same level as SARS, anthrax and mycobacterium tuberculosis, and second only to level four biohazards such as the Ebola virus, Lo said.

In related news, the Council of Agriculture on Friday said that it has intercepted pork being smuggled in from China 292 times over the past month.

The Statute for Prevention and Control of Infectious Animal Disease (動物傳染病防治條例) stipulates that those convicted of smuggling pork can face fines from NT$3,000 to NT$15,000, Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine Deputy Director-General Shih Tai-hua (施泰華) said yesterday.

The bureau has tested 24 samples from the confiscated pork for the African swine fever virus, and the results would be known this week, Shih said.

If any of the samples test positive for the virus, the bureau might seek heavier penalties for smugglers, but it is still in discussions with judicial authorities about which article of the law would apply for such cases, Shih said.

For example, people who smuggled living birds into the nation were prosecuted under Article 33 of the law, which bans the smuggling of animals or other living creatures that need to undergo quarantine measures, and sentenced to two years in prison, even if the birds were free of disease, he said.

However, the article could not be applied to the smuggling of pork meat, because it is no longer a living creature, he said.