The Chinese government has not provided information requested urgently by international health experts about recent avian flu outbreaks in birds, which now threaten to spread the highly lethal virus to previously unaffected countries, according to U.N. officials and independent researchers.
World Health Organization officials and other international health organizations have asked the Chinese government for details about three outbreaks in the remote western provinces of Qinghai and Xinjiang. In seeking to head off a potential human pandemic, international health experts said they require samples of the bird flu virus, analyses of its genetic makeup and specifics about the extent of the infection and efforts to contain it.
"It is a matter of urgency," said Julie Hall, coordinator of communicable diseases in WHO's China office. "It is an outbreak of potential international importance. We're looking for China to share the information as quickly as possible and as much as possible."
While Chinese authorities allowed a team of investigators from WHO and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to visit Qinghai last month, the government has yet to respond to a June 17 request by international health experts to travel to Xinjiang, U.N. officials said. The Chinese officials, saying the infection in Xinjiang has been contained, have given no indication they will authorize the trip.
Chinese officials did not respond to written requests for comment by The Washington Post sent Wednesday to the State Council, the equivalent of China's cabinet, and the Agriculture Ministry. When officials were contacted again on Friday, they said they were still working on a response.
In late April, Chinese authorities began to detect the widespread death of migratory birds at a nature reserve in Qinghai, an important breeding and transit point for 189 bird species. During the following weeks, Chinese officials reported that more than 6,000 waterfowl had died from bird flu, raising the prospect that the disease could spread along the long-distance migration routes to South Asia and beyond to Europe.
Then, last month, China reported two more outbreaks in Xinjiang, including one on the border with Kazakhstan. Though officials said the deaths were mainly among domestic geese and ducks, they added that migratory birds had played a role in spreading the infection.
Hitoshi Oshitani, WHO's chief influenza expert for East Asia, stressed that it was vital to get information about the outbreaks because the death of migratory birds, previously resistant to bird flu, indicates the virus could be taking an ominous turn.
"We need to find out what is actually causing the problem. We need to know what change in the virus is responsible for such an event," Oshitani said in an interview at WHO's regional headquarters in Manila.
He added that health experts were also anxious for detailed information because the location of recent outbreaks in western China, far from earlier cases in the east of the country, puts the lethal disease for the first time on the doorstep of Central Asia.
Since bird flu began circulating widely in East Asia two years ago, it has devastated poultry flocks in nine countries and killed at least 56 people in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Indonesia's health minister said last week that she suspected the virus was also responsible for the recent deaths of three people in one family on the outskirts of the capital, Jakarta.
International health experts warn that the existing virus strain, still difficult to spread to humans, could easily undergo a genetic change and spark a global human pandemic, killing tens of millions of people.
U.N. officials and independent scientists said they were reluctant to publicly discuss their frustrations with China for fear the government would shut them out of the country. But officials and researchers said they were dismayed with the government's secrecy, especially after China ran afoul of international agencies for its response to the SARS epidemic that began in 2002. China's health minister was fired after the government acknowledged it covered up the SARS outbreak.
Independent Chinese scientists reporting on the bird flu outbreaks also have come under fire from the Agriculture Ministry, which is responsible for monitoring the disease. After an article published two weeks ago in the journal Nature, warning of the international threat posed by the Qinghai outbreak and linking it to earlier bird flu cases in southeastern China, a senior veterinary official, Jia Youling, accused the highly recognized authors of conducting unapproved research and reaching inaccurate conclusions.
One of the authors, Guan Yi of Hong Kong University, said Chinese officials had stymied his research since May and complained to The Scientist magazine last week that the government was trying to shut down his laboratory.
After each outbreak in western China was reported, WHO officials promptly asked the government to provide genetic sequencing information developed from samples taken from infected birds, Hall said. The sequencing data are considered critical in tracking the development of the virus strains.
"The key questions are what exactly is this virus, what risk could it provide to humans and where it goes next. Until the sequencing information is provided by the government, it's very difficult to know," Hall said.