- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 1, 2006

GENEVA — After 18 months of stalling and repeated calls for cooperation by international health officials, China is expected to deliver a batch of animal virus samples of the lethal avian influenza virus H5N1, senior global health officials say.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) laboratory in Atlanta expects the samples to arrive “in the coming days,” said Mike Purdue, head of a team that is studying how influenza moves from animals to humans on behalf of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Dr. Purdue told The Washington Times that the necessary paperwork was completed by Chinese authorities last week, but one carrier did not want to haul the samples, so they will be shipped by another company for WHO.

WHO first asked China to share the samples in the spring of 2005, after thousands of migratory birds died in the province of Qinghai. The 10 samples expected by the CDC are from Qinghai and other regions, Dr. Purdue said.

International health officials and diplomats have long been frustrated by Beijing’s failure to send the samples promptly, despite its public pledges of full cooperation after its reluctance to share information aggravated a crisis over severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003.

The sharing of specimens is essential if researchers are to find a vaccine and more effective anti-viral drugs against bird flu. Since 2003, there have been 251 human cases of the avian influenza virus in 10 countries, of which 148 resulted in deaths.

Some Asian and Western health diplomats attribute the delay to a bureaucratic turf war between China’s Ministry of Agriculture, which has been reluctant to share the samples, and the Ministry of Health, which has been more willing to co-operate. The same sources said Chinese authorities were now fully sharing human samples from victims of bird flu and HIV/AIDS.

Despite its dynamic economy and huge foreign reserves, China offered only $10 million at a pledging conference in Beijing in January aimed at strengthening global preparedness against a human avian influenza pandemic.

Senior Western diplomatic sources said China initially offered no contribution at all and only came forward with the $10 million pledge when pressure was put on its political leaders. However, diplomats are cautiously optimistic that China is moving in the right direction on global health issues.

In a significant move, China has put forward Margaret Chan, a senior WHO official, for the top post of the global health agency, which is vacant after the sudden death in May of the incumbent, Lee Jong-wook. This is the first time that China has nominated a candidate for a major global agency.

Dr. Chan, formerly Hong Kong’s top health official, played a pivotal role in stamping out an avian-flu outbreak in the city in 1997. In July 2005, she publicly scolded China for stalling on vital cooperation over the outbreak of bird flu.

Another leading candidate in a crowded field is Shigeru Omi, a Japanese national and WHO regional director for the Western Pacific. Asian diplomats described fierce behind-the-scenes lobbying by Tokyo and Beijing for their respective nominees. The outcome is to be decided on Nov. 9.

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