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China Closes Lab Isolating and Sequencing H5N1 Bird Flu
July 26, 2005
A laboratory jointly run by universities in Hong and China said on Tuesday it had suspended studies into the H5N1 bird flu virus after Beijing issued new guidelines which triggered fears of a crackdown on academic freedom and independent research into the deadly disease.
The new rules were issued on May 30, five days after the Joint Influenza Research Centre sent an article to the international journal Nature which said that infected wild birds in western China might have picked up the virus from poultry farms in southern China.
A day after the article was published, Jia Youling, director general of the Ministry of Agriculture's Veterinary Bureau, criticised the findings and said no bird flu had broken out in southern China this year.
The closing of an independent lab in China is cause for concern. The lab has been doing H5N1 research in collaboration with Yi Guan's lab at Hong Kong University. The publication in Nature clearly demonstrated that H5N1 was present in 2005 in eastern China, even though China had filed no OIE reports in 2005 prior to the May 21 report on Qinghai Lake. Subsequent reports were filed on outbreaks in Xinjiang province, but there are still no reports of H5N1 in China in 2005 east of Qinhai Lake.
The 2005 isolates from Shantou in Guangdong Province were of particular interest, because five of the eight genes were virtually identical to the corresponding genes from Qinghai Lake isolates, clearly demonstrating a relationship between the H5N1 tarnsmitted between two regions in China. The lack of the PB2 mutation E627K in isolates outside of Qinghai Lake supports the notion that the isolates in Shantou may be from earlier Qinghai Lake infections instead of precursors of the Qinghai Lake isolates. However, the relationship demands more study.
China's actions strongly suggest they want to control and withhold vital information regarding H5N1 in China. The sequences will like be appearing throughout Asia and Europe via migratory birds wintering in China and Russia, but samples collected as the H5N1 evolves this season will be particularly important because of the lethality associated with Qinghai isolates and the H5N1 endemic to much of Asia, including China in general and Guangdong Province in particular.
The Qinghai isolates, as well as isolates from Vietnam, share many polymorphisms with isolates from Guangdong province. Independent studies of this region should be increased not decreased.
The timing of the new announcement, in view of the 20 isolates deposited at GenBank and Los Alamos (which included all 12 isolates collected at Qinghai Lake), as well as the virulence of the Qinghai isolates, increases concerns that there is a raging pandemic in China and information on H5N1 is being withheld.