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WHO Fails to Quell Fears of a Re-emerging Virus

Recombinomics Commentary

April 13, 2005

>>  Fears that South Korean pigs had been infected by a strain of flu related to the virus that caused the 1918 pandemic have been refuted by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Concerns surfaced last October, when South Korean scientists published sequences of influenza viruses taken from farm pigs. Some analysts said the data contained genes from WSN/33, the strain derived from the virus that killed tens of millions of people and that now exists only in laboratories.

On 5 April, the WHO said that after analysing further samples, three teams found no evidence of the virus. The WHO says that the sequences were probably submitted in error, perhaps due to a mix-up with lab samples of WSN/33. But the scientists at the Chungnam National University in Daejeon who published the samples say that the possibility of contamination is remote.  <<

Although the WHO has tried to quell the fears of a resurfacing flu strain, they have failed to come up with a rationale explanation for the sequences at GenBank.  Rather than quell fears, the concern about the WSN/33 sequences in Korean swine is increased by WHO's inability to produce a logical explanation.

WHO will be issuing a press release with more details on their failed efforts, but since the comments above have been published in Nature, it is worth briefly noting why WHO's efforts are a clear failure.

Although highly unlikely explanations have been offered, there really are only two likely explanations for the data at GenBank.  The sequence data for six swine isolates have mixtures of human (H1N1 WSN/33) or avian (H9N2 Korean) genes.  As WHO consultants know from first hand knowledge, and the public knows from a write-up in Science, the sequences at GenBank were the subject of a manuscript submitted to Science.  The Korean lab that submitted the sequences knew exactly what was publicly available at GenBank.  Since there were six isolates of eight genes each and the genes were unique, there was little chance that the sequences were a mix-up or a deliberate fabrication.

These sequences clearly either represented reassorted and recombined genes as indicated by the sequences at GenBank, or they were H9N2 Korean avian sequences that somehow were contaminated with WSN/33 -like sequences.  The former could be proven by an independent confirmation, and the latter could be proven with sequences from H9N2 isolates with eight avian genes. 

WHO failed to find either.  Thus, the issue remains unresolved.  WHO is creating major questions on its competency to answer a simple question that raises significant public health concerns related to WSN/33 in swine on farms in Korea.  Other issues are related to movement of WSN/33 sequences from a lab to swine either via accidental or deliberate means.

WHO has only proven that it is unable to quickly resolve important public health and safety issues.

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