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China withholds information on a strain of bird flu which could risk a global pandemic

A scientist holding a Petri Dish with Virus and bacteria cells.

Despite an agreement concluded by the World Health Organisation, Chinese medical authorities are still withholding samples of bird flu H7N9 from their American counterparts.  

According to the New York Times, China has not passed on stem cell samples of Bird flu H7N9 to American health authorities for over a year.  In order to develop treatments and vaccines it is important to share information about this virus.  “Jeopardizing U.S. access to foreign pathogens and therapies to counter them undermines our nation’s ability to protect against infections which can spread globally within days,” explains Dr Michael Callahan an infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School. Scientists believe that the H7N9 virus could be the perfect candidate for the next global pandemic.

Established in China in 2013, the virus started to infect humans in 2016 to 2017 with 766 recorded cases so far. American health officials are interested in studying the virus’ evolution which initially multiplied in poultry farming.  However samples of the virus’ stem cells are necessary if scientists can carry out research. The United States find themselves exposed to a potential pandemic.  If the cells are not contained the virus could easily spread globally and existing treatment or vaccines would prove ineffective. “Pandemic influenza spreads faster than anything else,” explains Rick A. Bright, the director of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. “There’s nothing to hold it back or slow it down. Every minute counts.”

This lack of communication between China and the United States over this issue could be explained by recent trade pressures such as the Trump administrations introduction of new taxation on imported products.  As mentioned in the New York Times, the Untied States depends on China not only for the H7N9 flu samples but also for “medical supplies, such as plastic drip mechanisms for intravenous saline, as well as ingredients for certain oncology and anesthesia drugs.”  Health officials noted that there isn’t any medication ready in case of an outbreak which could be very dangerous if there are problems with the Chinese medical supply. Andrew C. Weber stated that “Given that this flu virus is a potential threat to humanity, not sharing it immediately with the global network of W.H.O. laboratories like C.D.C. is scandalous. Many could die needlessly if China denies international access to samples.”

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