Chinese rules stymie flu scientist

New regulations enforce stringent agriculture ministry control over research on H5N1 samples

By | July 6, 2005

A leading Hong Kong virologist researching the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza told The Scientist this week that new regulations from China's Ministry of Agriculture will prevent him investigating the virus.

"They are trying to stop me, trying to stop my investigation," said Guan Yi, a University of Hong Kong researcher whose group published a paper in Nature today (July 6) describing the latest sequence data isolated from dead geese near Qinghai Lake in western China.

Guan works at the University of Hong Kong's department of microbiology, and also runs the Joint Influenza Research Center at Shantou University, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.

It's that second lab, a collaborative institute between Guangdong and Hong Kong, that Guan is concerned about. He says its work will be stymied by new rules concerning the collection, storage, and research of serum samples from dead birds. The rules, first announced on May 31, but published via the Internet on Tuesday, imply that permission must be granted for scientists to collect and research H5N1 samples, and that isolates must be checked by the Ministry of Agriculture before further research can be conducted.

On June 16, an urgent bulletin on the official Chinese Veterinary Drug Information Net summarized the new rules. The notice also warned researchers: "It has been discovered that a number of laboratories, academic units, and institutes are carrying out research on deadly pathogens without proper safety measures…To enforce the rules, the [Ministry of Agriculture] will regulate and investigate research and testing without permission, to stop unauthorized work."

"God help me," Guan said, sounding exasperated, "they are trying to close everyone's lab." He said he believes the new rules are an excuse for authorities to exert tighter control over the dissemination of lab results, and are not aimed at protecting the wider population from bird flu outbreaks that have dotted the country in recent months.

He said the regulations will mean that the Animal Influenza Laboratory of Ministry of Agriculture in Harbin will become the primary lab sanctioned to carry out diagnostics on avian flu.

"I have the safest BL3 lab in Asia.… Shipping the samples to Harbin after I tell them it is an H5 virus is ridiculous," said Guan, adding that he already shares all his findings and data with the Ministry of Agriculture and the World Health Organization.

Guan said that only two labs in addition to Harbin have the permission needed for continued research on H5N1: the South China Agricultural University, and Yangzhou University Agricultural College.

In Nature, Guan's group reports the results of sequencing H5 strains from the Qinghai Lake, a nature reserve in western China, where at least 6,000 migratory birds have died. Their findings point to a single introduction of the virus, and show the likely source to be domestic poultry from Guangdong Province.

Unauthorized Chinese language Web sites and blogs have circulated rumors about bird flu illness in humans close to Qinghai Lake, but the reports have been dismissed by China's central government. The World Health Organization has also not received any confirmations of recent human cases in China.

However, the new rules may also make it hard for farmers, scientists, reporters, and officials to communicate suspected outbreaks. Rule number four of the new act states that no other entity except for the Veterinary Bureau within the Ministry of Agriculture can disseminate information on animal diseases. The final rule warns that "legal action will be taken against a person who defies theses laws."

The Chinese Ministry of Health, plus six other ministries including the Ministry of Science and Technology Authority, Education Authority, and Health Authority were signatories to the rules. But Guan said he believes the main advocate for the rules is Jia Youling, a Ministry of Agriculture spokesman and director general of the Veterinary Bureau. Jia could not be reached for comment.

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