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Lab's H5N1 work still suspended

Investigators at the Influenza Research Centre in southern China await permit to restart avian flu research

By | August 2, 2005

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 The Scientist.

"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 The Scientist on Monday. Research into the avian influenza strain at the center's Shantou laboratory had been suspended after its director Guan Yi, a University of Hong Kong virologist, was told his investigation was in violation of biosafety laws recently implemented by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture.

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 Nature. The criticism, carried by the state-owned news agency Xinhua, said the paper had reached the wrong conclusion by finding that H5N1 that had killed migratory birds originated in domestic poultry from southern China. A ministry official went as far as to suggest Guan's data was fallacious, the research unauthorized, and Guan's conclusion groundless.

Yuen told The Scientist that he felt the allegations were not productive. "They should [discuss] the facts, the finding, the genetic sequence, the phylogeny, etc. [in the Nature paper], not just say who is right and who is wrong. I cannot see how it's constructive," said Yuen. But he stopped short of saying the ministry's move to suspend H5N1 research and criticize the findings of the Shantou lab have put a damper on research carried out by Hong Kong and international scientists working in China.

"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 Nature."

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 The Scientist the statement was disappointing and that he had expected the University of Hong Kong to defend Guan's research. "Of course we were disappointed," he said.

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 The Scientist on Tuesday that none of the international flu reference labs used by the United Nations to track avian influenza had received recent isolates or sequence data. "We have on several occasions requested of China to share important information such as virus sequencing... of outbreaks of bird flu in the animal sector with the relevant international agencies and centers," he said.

Guan could not be contacted for this story.

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Comments

Avatar of: H. Mahoneey

H. Mahoneey

Posts: 1

November 25, 2006

Awesome article! I think u should publish more often!

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