- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

BEIJING. — China yesterday denied reports that it was the source of the bird flu outbreak that now afflicts 10 Asian nations, as Indonesia and Pakistan bowed to pressure for a mass cull of millions of sick chickens.

China became the latest Asian government to face charges of covering up the disease when the respected New Scientist journal in Britain said the epidemic probably erupted there as early as a year ago.

“A combination of official cover-up and questionable farming practices allowed it to turn into the epidemic now under way,” the weekly said, citing unnamed health specialists.

But as China halted poultry exports from its three affected provinces, Guangxi in the southwest near the Vietnamese border and the central provinces of Hubei and Hunan, its Foreign Ministry rejected the charges.

“We believe that such an allegation is totally inaccurate, groundless and doesn’t respect science,” said spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue.

The World Health Organization has asked for an explanation of the deaths last February of two Hong Kong tourists who had visited southern China, as part of efforts to track the origins of the outbreak that has claimed 10 lives.

However, the WHO’s Beijing-based spokesman Roy Wadia said that, despite the suspected link with the dead tourists, it was too early to confirm China as the origin of the disease, which could have had several likely sources.

The WHO has warned that while humans so far have caught the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu through contact with infected birds or their droppings, it could claim millions of lives if it mutates into a form that can be spread among humans.

New Scientist said it suspected the H5N1 virus was disseminated through a faulty mass poultry vaccination by Chinese farmers eager to protect their flocks from the disease, which triggered a mass cull in Hong Kong in 1997.

Proof of a cover-up would be embarrassing for China, which was criticized last year after it was learned that authorities had hidden the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) for months.

In Thailand, the government also faced heavy criticism after it acknowledged that it mishandled the bird flu crisis, which has spread to nearly half its 76 provinces and killed two children.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra acknowledged that mistakes had been made despite the lessons learned during the panic over SARS, which sprang from southern China and went on to claim nearly 800 lives with infections in 32 countries.

“Transparency and disclosure of information is essential to bring back confidence to the general public,” he told international crisis talks in Bangkok on Wednesday.

Ministers and officials from the affected nations — Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam — attended the Bangkok talks. Taiwan and Pakistan have reported weaker strains of the virus.

Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam also have faced charges of a cover-up that reportedly has hampered attempts to curb the spread of the disease, which has led to the deaths of more than 20 million poultry.

Indonesia yesterday ordered the slaughter of all infected poultry after coming under pressure from the WHO, but it was not clear whether the cull would extend to healthy poultry, as it has elsewhere.

“We will do it. We will destroy those infected. The good ones will be saved,” Welfare Minister Yusuf Kalla said. Indonesia has said millions of birds across much of the vast archipelago have been infected.

Taiwan reported new outbreaks in ducks and chickens at four farms in the south, and said that poultry there would be slaughtered.

In Vietnam, where eight persons have died, bird flu has hit three more of the 64 provinces and cities, taking the number affected to 31, the government said.

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