More Bird Flu Data Hiding
Threatens H5N1 Analysis

By Dan Eaton

Indonesia is failing to send bird flu samples to official laboratories, creating a "data blackout" that could have serious implications for New Zealand as it seeks to ward off a pandemic.
Experts said submitting samples for testing at United Nations-approved facilities was key to global surveillance of the virus, which it is feared will mutate into a form easily passed between people.
They also warned new research unveiled this week in the United States, in which scientists failed to combine the deadly H5N1 strain with common flu in a way that could cause a pandemic, was not as encouraging as it might seem. "I think the situation in Indonesia is worrying for the rest of the world, and it is rapidly catching up, in terms of the number of outbreaks in poultry species, with Vietnam," said Lance Jennings, a Christchurch virologist.
Jennings, who works as a consultant for the UN's World Health Organisation (WHO), said some samples from indonesia were getting out. "One of the major issues with a number of countries is that they are putting caveats on those samples; for example, that the information is not allowed to be widely disseminated," he said.
He said the WHO was working to try to find a resolution. "The WHO does manage a global influenza surveillance network and it is imperative that countries do contribute openly to this network."
Experts say some countries have been reluctant to disclose the extent of bird flu infection for fear of sowing panic and damaging tourism.
The weekly scientific journal Nature on July 28 reported that few, if any, avian flu samples from Indonesia had been sent to official laboratories for sequencing over the past year. It said the data blackout came as surveys of the country were revealing a startling number of previously unrecognised avian flu outbreaks.
Peter Roeder, a consultant with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Indonesia, said the first samples since August last year had finally arrived at the World Organisation for Animal Health reference library in Geelong, Australia.
Without proper sequencing of bird flu viruses, it is difficult to tell whether they are mutating or how human cases correspond to those in birds.
Seven bird flu deaths in an Indonesian family this year led to fear the virus could spread from one person to another as no nearby avian source could be identified. "It's not really surprising in countries like Indonesia that there are possibly unrecognised pockets of infection still bubbling away," said Environmental Science and Research (ESR) health general manager Fiona Thomson-Carter. "Quite frankly, Indonesia probably doesn't enjoy First World public health services," she said.
ESR is the New Zealand agency that monitors new organisms and holds the national collection of medical bacteria and viruses. Thomson-Carter said the failure by US scientists to create a pandemic virus should not get people too excited. "What nature accomplishes very elegantly, scientists struggle to mimic in a laboratory situation."
However, it was encouraging to know that should terrorists get hold of the virus they would face significant challenges. "The notion of the white-coated boffin being able to unleash merry hell on the world doesn't always hold," she said.
Biosecurity chiefs this year imported a small quantity of the H5N1 virus and are keeping it under tight security at a lab in Upper Hutt. Lab manager Joseph O'Keefe said Kiwi scientists would not be conducting US-style experiments.
Patricia A. Doyle DVM, PhD
Bus Admin, Tropical Agricultural Economics
Univ of West Indies
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