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WHO Awaits Response from China on Request for Bird Flu Samples

China has yet to hand over tissue samples from bird flu outbreaks in poultry requested by the World Health Organization. WHO officials say sharing information on China's 26 reported outbreaks in animals this year could help formulate effective vaccines and other prevention measures.

China has given no clear explanation of why it has not honored World Health Organization requests for more information on cases of the H5N1 virus in poultry this year. The WHO would like to study samples of tissue taken from infected birds to help scientists develop ways to fight the virus.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters at a regular briefing on Tuesday that China is willing to cooperate with the international community on efforts to prevent the spread of bird flu.

"China has consistently believed in international cooperation to deal with the threat of avian influenza, within the framework of international mechanisms," he said. "We have also stepped up our scientific laboratory and epidemiological research on avian influenza."

However, Mr. Qin offered no commitment on when his government might turn over the laboratory samples the WHO seeks.

Dr. Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organization's regional director for the Western Pacific says that seeing the tissue samples would allow researchers to know what changes the virus is undergoing, which would be crucial to developing an effective vaccine.

Speaking in Beijing last week, Dr. Omi said health experts now might be limited in their scope of research because they are currently working with strains of the virus found in Vietnam.

"If the outbreak pandemic starts due to the virus originating from Vietnam, we are prepared. But if the pandemic emerges due to the virus circulating in China, we are not yet prepared," he said. "For that purpose, it is very important for all the virus [strains] to be shared with the international community."

China has embarked on a massive campaign that includes culling flocks and vaccinating billions of animals. International health experts have praised Beijing for sharing information on cases of bird flu in humans. China has had six confirmed human cases - two of them fatal.

The disease has killed more than 70 people in Asia over the past three years - most of whom have been infected from birds. Scientists are concerned a global pandemic might result if the disease mutates so it can pass easily from person to person.