December 20, 2005

US Says China Open on Bird Flu

BEIJING (Reuters) - China and the United States are cooperating on efforts to understand deadly bird flu, a major shift from Beijing's handling of SARS, U.S. National Institutes of Health director Elias Zerhouni said on Tuesday.

"There is a definite willingness to be completely cooperative, be completely transparent and to exchange samples with the WHO and with other partners so we can track the genetic changes," he told a news conference in Beijing.

"I think it is remarkable as compared to the situation before SARS, where transparency and cooperation was less than optimal," he said. "At the time, we had a real difficulty in collaborating, getting samples and explanations."

China was criticized widely for its initial cover-up of the SARS virus, which first emerged in its southern province of Guangdong in 2003.

The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that China had agreed to share virus isolates from human bird flu cases, which the U.N. agency has been seeking to help it track the deadly H5N1 virus.

The director of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control presented Shigeru Omi, WHO's regional director for the Western Pacific, with a draft agreement in Beijing on Tuesday, said WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng.

"They agreed they would share the isolates with WHO's network of collaborating centers," said Geneva-based Cheng, adding details on logistics would be finalized very shortly.

Sharing virus isolates taken from human bird flu patients will help experts track the virus to see how it changes and allow them to compare any genetic changes with cases in countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam.

This year, China has had more than 30 outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu that scientists fear could mutate from a disease which largely affects birds to one that can pass easily between people, leading to a human pandemic.

There have been 139 confirmed human cases of H5N1, all of them in Asia, including six in China. Two people have died from bird flu in China, out of 71 known fatalities in Asia.

The U.S. and Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Agriculture Ministries were collaborating to build the ability to detect and diagnose the virus and train experts, Zerhouni said.

Tracking changes in samples from human cases was key to developing a vaccine and the National Institutes of Health was working on a vaccine as well as testing antiviral medicines that could provide an alternative to Tamiflu, he said.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva)