Scientists working at the Joint Influenza Research Centre of Shantou University and the University of Hong Kong are eager to restart H5N1 research but are still waiting for permission from China's Ministry of Agriculture, a leading investigator told
"We all want to continue this very important research in Shantou," Yuen Kwok-yung, the head of the University of Hong Kong's microbiology department, told
Yuen said that, in his view, Guan had met all necessary biosafety requirements and the lab's work did not constitute a biosafety hazard. "He was definitely not violating the law; remember that they have always been working according to the WHO [World Health Organization] requirement for the surveillance of influenza virus." He noted that the two universities had filed the appropriate application for resumption of their research more than a month ago. "We hope this problem can be solved soon."
Yuen said that while the laboratory always sought to meet China's strict biosafety requirements, researchers might have been caught off guard by an interpretation of new laws made public by the Ministry of Agriculture in June. "We think we've been working in some gray areas," Yuen noted.
He said Guan had collected H5N1 strains from apparently healthy chickens and sequenced them—actions that were technically outside the law because he did not have permission to gather strains that had the potential to cause a "pandemic" in animals. "We are collecting samples from healthy looking chickens and poultry, and then theoretically they're not affected [by avian influenza]... so we are not collecting outbreak strains or viruses," Yuen continued.
"But some of the viruses, as it turns out, contain genetic characteristics of pathogenic viruses, so we should not [be collecting these] for that particular lab in Shantou, according to the mainland [Chinese] government," explained Yuen.
The Ministry of Agriculture has also recently criticized a report on an H5N1 outbreak published by Guan, Yuen, and others in
"It's an academic discussion," he said. "Debating such [an] academic issue in the media is not a proper channel. I think if [criticism] is done, it should be done through the correspondence section in
Last week, the University of Hong Kong and Shantou University put out a joint press release stating that the Shantou lab researchers and the scientists at the agriculture ministry had reached similar conclusions. It stated that scientists at the ministry and the Joint Influenza Research Centre were simply having an academic debate about the origin of H5N1 in Lake Qinghai's migratory birds.
Kwok Ka Ki, a Hong Kong lawmaker representing the city's doctors and biomedical research sector, told
Kwok said he believes the university is seeking to assuage ministry officials instead of tackling the real issue of protection of academic freedom. "It's just some help to make Guan Yi's research again possible."
Meanwhile, World Health Organization spokesman Roy Wadia told
Guan could not be contacted for this story.