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Nature bird flu paper 'wrong'

Chinese officials say H5N1 research published last week was incorrect and unauthorized

By | July 15, 2005

A Chinese agriculture ministry official said this week that a paper about the deaths from avian flu of geese in the country, published in the July 6 online issue of Nature, was wrong and had been conducted without government approval.

The paper, by University of Hong Kong researcher Guan Yi and colleagues, including Robert G. Webster and Malik Peiris, concluded that an H5N1 outbreak among bar-headed geese and gulls at Qinghai Lake Nature Reserve was triggered by the introduction of a strain from southern China.

But last weekend, China's Ministry of Agriculture spokesman made strong statements carried by China's state-controlled Xinhua news service, dismissing the research.

"An article on bird flu carried in the renowned journal Nature made the wrong conclusion," stated the article, which went on to say that, "no bird flu has broken out in southern China since [the beginning of] this year.

"The writers' laboratory lacks the basic conditions for biological safety," the article said. "The writers did not apply [for] government approval for carrying out such bird flu virus research."

The statement came at a time of uncertainty for flu researchers in the region. Last week, Guan told The Scientist he feared that new research regulations imposed by the agriculture ministry would lead to legal reprisals for his sequencing of Qinghai Lake H5N1 strains.

But during a meeting in Macau between officials and experts from Hong Kong, mainland China, and Macau on infectious diseases this week, Guangdong's health bureau said China's Ministry of Health did not issue new instructions demanding researchers seek approval prior to their investigations.

"The ministry has always supported the communication mechanism among Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong, and our quest to control infectious diseases," a Hong Kong newspaper quoted Huang Fei, the deputy director of Guangdong's health bureau, as saying.

"It's quite confusing," Kwok Ka Ki, a Hong Kong lawmaker representing the city's doctors and biomedical research sector, told The Scientist on Thursday. "We received the message that [China's] agriculture department is not going to endorse research without their permission."

The regulations, if enforced, would likely curtail scientists' ability to share serum samples, data, and opinion without the explicit approval from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Kwok said he was going to ask Hong Kong's government how it's leaders were going to guarantee that the city's researchers are given a fair chance to participate in research in mainland China. Hong Kong, although part of China, maintains a separate legal and government system from the mainland.

"We learned from the SARS saga that we need to strive for the free flow of information and free flow of any raw data for research," said Kwok, adding that the exchange of information was crucial to battling the spread of avian flu in chickens and a possible human pandemic if a strain gains momentum in spreading between people.

Kwok says so far he knows of no Hong Kong researchers that have been arrested by Chinese officials. "But I think if they [the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture] are really going to introduce that kind of regulations, there may be a very high possibility that, in the future, if any researcher is doing research without authorization, they maybe arrested."

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