U.N. Presses China on Bird Flu Drug

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 21, 2005

JAKARTA, Indonesia, June 21 -- U.N. officials pressed their concerns with the Chinese government Monday over the reported use of an influenza drug for humans to treat bird flu in poultry, which would violate international guidelines.

Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization's chief representative in Beijing, sought information about the practice from the Chinese Health Ministry, U.N. officials said, adding that WHO experts planned to hold more discussions with Chinese officials in coming days.

A representative of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Beijing also contacted the Chinese Agriculture Ministry seeking details about the practice, U.N. officials said.

China's government said Tuesday it was dispatching experts to stop the misuse of the antiviral drug on poultry and denied a Washington Post report published Saturday that said officials encouraged farmers to use the drug.

Citing animal health experts, The Post had reported that Chinese farmers had used the antiviral drug amantadine to treat bird flu in chickens with the approval and encouragement of government officials. As a result, researchers have concluded that the drug will not be effective if the bird flu virus emerges as a human pandemic.

"This has highly significant public health implications," said Roy Wadia, spokesman for WHO in China. "In any situation, the proper use and proper administration of antivirals must be adhered to because the dangers of drug resistance are extremely high when drugs are not used in the manner for which they are made."

Since January 2004, bird flu has struck nine East Asian countries, killing at least 54 people and forcing poultry farmers to destroy their flocks. International health experts have warned the virus could easily undergo a genetic change, creating a strain capable of killing tens of millions of people worldwide. Researchers determined last year that the virus circulating in much of Southeast Asia had grown resistant to amantadine, the least expensive drug available for treating influenza.

Though China informed the World Animal Health Organization in February 2004 that bird flu had broken out on poultry farms around the country, the drug had been used widely on Chinese farms for several years, according to pharmaceutical executives and veterinarians.

Juan Lubroth, a senior officer in the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's Animal Health Service, said his agency wants to find out whether amantadine had been licensed by Chinese authorities for veterinary purposes and used only after proper clinical trials in animals. Lubroth, who is based at FAO headquarters in Rome, said he was unaware of any testing of the drug on animals.

He said international agriculture officials would be especially concerned if Chinese farmers had administered inadequate doses of the drug to chickens, a practice that commonly leads to drug resistance.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company