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China keeping its bird flu samples under wraps

ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images China is the latest country to be hoarding its bird flu samples, according to a Reuters report today. China has not shared any human H5N1 samples of bird flu with World Health Organization-accredited laboratories since April 2006—even though it has seen five more human infections—leading to fears that the country may be obstructing ...

ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

China is the latest country to be hoarding its bird flu samples, according to a Reuters report today. China has not shared any human H5N1 samples of bird flu with World Health Organization-accredited laboratories since April 2006—even though it has seen five more human infections—leading to fears that the country may be obstructing global efforts to track changes in the virus and fight it. Indonesia has also been refusing to share its bird flu samples with the WHO (opting for a private deal instead), and only consented to resume sample-sharing after reaching an agreement with the WHO after a two-day crisis meeting last month in Jakarta. The meeting concluded with the WHO promising to develop a new mechanism for sample-sharing that would be fairer to poorer countries.

Indonesia had stopped sharing samples because, the country’s officials argued, the samples led to expensive vaccinations, which Indonesia then found difficult to afford. China’s decision, however, has less to do with drug access than with protecting the samples for its own homegrown laboratories. But China also resents the way scientists and health experts in the developed world monopolize drug production and knowledge. Chinese scientists were particularly irked when, after sending samples to the WHO in 2004, their analyses and work were published in a journal by foreigners—with no credit given to the Chinese scientists. The foreign researchers have since apologized, but the experience has clearly impacted China’s views about collaborating with international experts. Even so, Henk Bekedam, the WHO’s representative in China, is confident that China will soon resume its sample-sharing. But without guarantees of the same nature as Indonesia’s, there’s good reason to be skeptical.

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