China has not shared strains of the deadly H7N9 avian flu virus, despite an international agreement.
According to a report from the New York Times, the country has held onto the flu strain for more than a year, refusing to deliver it to vaccine developers in the United States. Typically, countries share such bird flu and other flu strains following rules that the World Health Organization created. The process usually takes a few months, and China has continued to drag its feet well beyond the reasonable timeframe for such sharing. Unfortunately, the argument over releasing the necessary medical supply may have dire health consequences for not only just the United States, but also the entire world.
“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,” Dr. Michael Callahan, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School, said.
Since 2013, the H7N9 virus has spread among Chinese poultry farm, and it also infects humans. Unfortunately, in the past, roughly 40 percent of people who become infected with the virulent strain of the flu ended up dying. The small saving grace is that most of the infections from the virus appeared to come from avian to human transmission instead of human to human. However, that puts those who work on or visit poultry farms or live markets at risk.
Live Science revealed that scientists need access to this strain to develop a vaccine that will help protect against a flu pandemic.
"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." https://t.co/qN7LvsqPE6
— Alexandra Stevenson (@jotted) August 28, 2018
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), took to Twitter to express his outrage over the news that the world’s most populous country decided not to share the virus.
“Outrageous that #China is withholding samples of deadly flu virus from U.S. health authorities. It is dangerous to play games with a biological threat that has killed 40% of its victims. Using ‘a potential threat to humanity’ as leverage is certainly not the behavior of a responsible global stakeholder.”
Using “a potential threat to humanity” as leverage is certainly not the behavior of a responsible global stakeholder. (2/2)
— Senator Rubio Press (@SenRubioPress) August 28, 2018
Because the virus spread through China, many Americans have almost no immunity to it, and given the way flu viruses mutate and pandemics spread, it could end up leading to a significant worldwide health disaster. If for some reason, the strain changed to a human-to-human transmission, the effects could be devastating.
Although China initially provided timely samples after the 2013 outbreak of H7N9, that cooperation has waned. It’s possible that recent trade problems between the countries contributed to the lack of sharing. In fact, since 2002, biological samples have been used as leverage in looming trade issues.
Ultimately, this move has been described as “scandalous” by Andrew C. Weber, who oversaw biological defense programs with the Obama administration, due to its threat to global health.