May 15, 2009
WHO Discredits Theory That Swine Flu Was Man-Made
In an attempt to discredit rumors started by an Australian virologist that the swine flu was the failed product of a laboratory experiment, officials from the World Health Organization made an announcement on Thursday directly addressing the issue.
"We took this [rumor] very seriously. But the evidence suggests that this is a naturally occurring virus, not a laboratory-derived virus," said the WHO's deputy director general Dr. Keiji Fukuda in a telephone conference.
On a different note, Dr. Fukuda also took the opportunity to support a number of drug companies who have begun working on generic versions of the antiviral drug Tamiflu, which he believes could greatly benefit a number of impoverished countries who have no stockpiles of the drug.
The WHO has gone forward with the approval of only one Tamiflu generic thus far "“ Antiflu, which is being produced by the Indian
pharmaceutical company Cipla in both pill and liquid forms. The company's chairman Dr. Yusuf K. Hamied has said that the company has already arranged to sell large quantities of the drug to Mexico and is also in talks with health authorities in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
To date there have been some 6,500 confirmed cases of the H1N1 flu worldwide, scattered across 33 countries. Of the total confirmed cases, about 4,300 have occurred in the United States.
The theory that the virus might have been man-made was started by Dr. Adrian J. Gibbs, a retired plant virologist at the Australian National University. Gibbs had previously made a name for himself in the science community when he published a paper postulating that the infamous 1918 pandemic began as a bird flu strain "“ a notion that is now widely accepted by most flu experts.
After studying the swine flu's genetic information made available on public data banks, Dr. Gibbs noticed several oddities that led him to his theory about the virus' origin. He says that the new virus was not as closely related to known strains as some have suggested and that it had far greater number of the amino acid lysine and more mutations than other known forms of the swine flu. These clues, he postulated, indicate that the H1N1 strain might have been grown in egg cells, a medium typically used for growing viruses in vaccine laboratories.
Bloomberg News was the first to report Dr. Gibbs' theory, which spread quickly throughout other media outlets despite harsh criticism and outright protest from a number of prominent virologists and health authorities. On Thursday morning, Dr. Gibbs was interviewed on the popular ABC News program "Good Morning America."
The WHO'S Dr. Fukuda has attempted to quell the rumors for good, stating that Dr. Gibbs' "hypothesis does not really stand up to scrutiny." The number of lysine residues and mutations were not irregular, he claimed, and added that various strains of swine influenza may often appear unrelated simply because not enough pigs are tested each year.
Dr. Fukuda said he did not believe that the rumors would be damaging and even welcomed the discussions surrounding the controversy as "healthy."
"This is much better than dealing with rumors where you don't know where the mistake comes from and can't correct it," he said.
Bogus medical superstitions that tend to circulate in less technologically developed countries "“ such as those claiming that AIDS is not caused by a virus or that the polio vaccine causes sterility in women "“ have had devastating effects on efforts to combat those diseases in places like Africa and Southeast Asia.
However, though health authorities have negated Gibbs' theory on the origin of the virus, they have not as yet been able to provide a positive explanation of their own. Thus far, the earliest identified cases of the virus were found in Veracruz, Mexico, and researchers have seemed stumped in their abilities to trace it back any further.
WHO officials say that swine flu concerns may cause them to cut short their annual 9-day conference of world health ministers to allow them to return home and continue fighting the spread of the disease.
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