China's Agriculture Ministry denied Tuesday that the government had encouraged farmers to use an influenza drug intended for people to treat bird flu in poultry, a practice that researchers say would make the drug ineffective if the virus broke out among humans.
The Chinese strategy for treating avian influenza in chickens focuses on the use of a preventive vaccine rather than antiviral drugs, the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry statement was in response to a Washington Post report Saturday that Chinese farmers had used the drug amantadine widely and with the encouragement of officials in violation of international livestock guidelines. Citing animal health experts, The Post reported that the production and sale of the drug for treating livestock had been approved by Chinese agriculture officials and that local government veterinary stations instructed farmers how to use it.
"This is groundless and isn't in accordance with the truth," the ministry statement said. "Amantadine is an anti-virus medicine for humans. The Chinese government has never permitted farmers to use amantadine to treat bird flu or other virus-related disease."
Instead, the Agriculture Ministry said, the Chinese government had approved the production of three highly effective vaccines to prevent poultry from catching bird flu and distributed them to farmers, in some cases for free and in others at a 50 percent discount.
The government-run China Daily acknowledged in a front-page article Tuesday that some farmers had used amantadine in poultry. The newspaper reported that the Agriculture Ministry planned to send inspection teams across the country to halt the practice. "We'll take measures soon to curb the action," said Xu Shixin, division director of the veterinary bureau, the newspaper reported.
He also told the newspaper that the government had never authorized the use of amantadine by farmers.
Officials from both the World Health Organization and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization raised concerns with the Chinese government this week about the reported use of the drug. Henk Bekedam, WHO's top official in China, discussed the matter in greater detail Tuesday during a meeting with senior Chinese health officials, an agency spokesman said.
"He was assured that the Ministry of Health is taking this matter very seriously, and they will be in close contact with the Ministry of Agriculture about what's been going on and will get more details and specifics on what is being done to discontinue this practice," said Roy Wadia, spokesman for WHO in China.
Since the beginning of last year, the highly lethal bird flu virus has devastated poultry in nine East Asian countries and infected more than 100 people, killing at least 54. International health experts have warned that the virus could undergo genetic change and spawn a global pandemic.