Health officials are racing to destroy thousands of vials of a deadly flu virus sent by mistake to laboratories around the world. The World Health Organization says the virus could cause another deadly pandemic if it is mishandled.
The vials contain a strain of flu virus that killed between one and four million people in 1957. They were sent to more than 4,000 labs in 18 countries by a U.S. company that supplies kits for routine tests.
Julie Gerberding, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a news conference that the risk to the general population is very low, but health officials do not want to take any chances.
"This virus is the virus that was associated with the Asian flu pandemic in 1957, so it is a very important human virus in its origin. It is a virus that we know can cause human disease and obviously a virus that we have not seen in this country for a long period of time," says Ms. Gerberding.
The World Health Organization, or WHO, has urged all countries affected to destroy their virus samples. Klaus Stohr, the head of WHO's global influenza program, told a news conference that there is a slight risk the virus could trigger a global pandemic.
"This virus is fully transmissible from humans to humans and everybody born after 1968 would have no immunity," says Klaus Stohr.
Mr. Stohr says the virus has not been included in anti-flu vaccines since 1968.
The problem began when the College of American Pathologists inadvertently sent test kits containing the deadly virus to thousands of labs. The kits contain blind samples that labs must identify correctly for quality control or to obtain certification.
A Canadian lab identified the strain of deadly 1957 flu virus and alerted the WHO.
Jared Schwartz, a spokesman for the College of American Pathologists, says he regrets the mistake.
"We need to tighten up the methods that we have to make sure that nothing can happen like that ever in the future," says Mr. Schwartz.
The WHO plans to take an inventory of labs that have destroyed the virus. But health officials are urgently recommending greater precautions with virus samples in the future.