Category Archives: Viruses and biological threats

Man dies from bird flu in China

A man in southern China has died of bird flu a week after being admitted to hospital with a fever, state media reports.

The 39-year-old bus driver from Guangdong province contracted the first human case of bird flu in China in 18 months.

The man from Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, developed symptoms last week and was admitted to a hospital on Christmas Day because of severe pneumonia, the official Xinhua news agency said.

The report added the man died in the early afternoon on Saturday (local time), after having tested positive for the H5N1 virus.

Guangdong’s official newspaper, the Southern Daily, said 120 people who had contact with the man had developed no signs of sickness.

About 10 days ago Hong Kong culled 17,000 chickens at a wholesale poultry market and suspended all imports of live chickens from mainland China for 21 days after a dead chicken there tested positive for the H5N1 virus.

The virus is normally found in birds but can jump to people who do not have immunity to it.

Researchers worry it could mutate into a form that would spread around the world and kill millions.

In recent years, the virus has become active in various parts of the world, mainly in east Asia, during the cooler months.

Authorities in China are worried about the spread of infectious diseases around this time when millions of Chinese travel in crowded buses and trains across the country to go home to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

The current strain of H5N1 is highly pathogenic, kills most species of birds and up to 60 per cent of the people it infects.

Since 2003, it has infected 573 people around the world, killing 336.

The virus also kills migratory birds but species that manage to survive can carry and disperse the virus to new, uninfected locations.

It transmits less easily between people but there have been clusters of infections in people in Indonesia and Thailand in the past.



Flu scare sparks mass Hong Kong chicken cull

Hong Kong workers handle chickens

Hong Kong has culled 17,000 chickens and suspended live poultry imports for 21 days after three birds tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu virus.

Health chief York Chow announced the measures after a dead chicken at the city’s main wholesale market and two wild birds tested positive for the virus, which can be fatal to humans.

Authorities raised the bird flu alert level to “serious” and suspended live imports while they trace the origin of the infected chicken, meaning major disruptions to poultry supplies over the busy Christmas period.

“It is unfortunate that an avian influenza case is detected before the Winter Solstice, necessitating a halt to the supply of live chickens,” Mr Chow said.

“I understand that it will cause inconvenience to the public and the poultry trade will also encounter losses.”

All chickens at the Wholesale Poultry Market were slaughtered and extra inspections were ordered at chicken farms and hospitals.

Authorities confirmed on Tuesday that an oriental magpie robin found dead in a secondary school at the weekend had tested positive for H5N1, the second such case in a week.

Another secondary school was ordered to close for a day for disinfection last Friday after a dead black-headed gull was found with the virus.

A school clerk who picked up the bird was taken to hospital with her son, who had developed flu-like symptoms, but both were cleared later.

Hong Kong was the site of the world’s first major outbreak of bird flu among humans in 1997 when six people died. Millions of birds were culled.

The virus, which does not pass easily from human to human, has killed around 350 people worldwide, with Indonesia the worst-hit country. Most human infections are the result of direct contact with infected birds.

In people it can cause fever, coughing, a sore throat, pneumonia, respiratory disease and, in about 60 per cent of cases, death.

Scientists fear H5N1 will mutate into a form readily transmissible between humans with the potential to cause millions of deaths.

Hong Kong is particularly nervous about infectious diseases after an outbreak of deadly respiratory disease SARS in 2003 killed 300 people in the city and a further 500 worldwide.


Calls to censor details of potential killer flu

A doctor checks a rooster

The suppression of breakthrough research into deadly bird flu strains has been labelled scientific censorship by some, but others say it is a necessary step to prevent a possible biological attack.

Last month researchers in the Netherlands discovered that the H5N1 influenza virus, or bird flu, could develop into a dangerous virus that can spread between humans.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu is fatal in 60 per cent of human cases but only 350 people have so far died from the disease largely because it cannot be spread by sneezing or coughing.

But by using ferrets in a lab, the researchers proved it was possible to change H5N1 into an aerosol-transmissible virus that can be easily spread rapidly through the air.

The genetic mutations could trigger deadly epidemics in humans, and the scientists behind the research have now agreed to remove key details of their work from publication.

“It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers,” he said in a statement.

He says authorities are trying to work out how appropriate access to the scientific methods and data can be granted within the scenario recommended by the NSABB.


But there are concerns now that science is being censored.

Professor Wendy Barclay, the chair of Influenza Virology at Imperial College in London, says the Erasmus study should be reviewed and shared.

“It’s a very worrying idea that the information may be restricted to those that qualify in some way to be allowed to share it,” she said in a statement.

“Who will qualify? How will this be decided? In the end, is the likelihood of misuse outweighed by the danger of beginning a big brother society?

“I’m not convinced that withholding scientific know-how will prevent the highly unlikely scenario of misuse of information, but I am worried that it may stunt our progress towards the improved control of this infectious disease.”

‘Major mistake’

Peter Collignon, a Professor of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at the Australian National University, says the study should not have been conducted in the first place.

“Yes this is censorship, but by allowing this material to be out in the general public I think you’re putting public health at higher risk rather than lower risk,” he said.

“If you’ve actually taken a virus like the influenza virus… if you genetically engineer that and engineer mutations that then make it readily transmissible from… potentially from person to person, that is a huge problem given that the millions of people who’ve died in 1918 as a result of the Spanish flu.

“So to allow that material to be published that may be used by somebody with less than honourable intents, to use it to engineer something, I think is a major mistake.

“But what is even more a major mistake was that this research was allowed to go ahead in the first place.”


He says there should be an international convention on the use of aggressive viruses.

“I think if you’re taking a virus we have now and making it even more aggressive or more lethal and more easily spread, I do think you need an international convention or group of countries that regulate that so that just one country can’t use it against the others,” he said.

“And to me you really have to justify doing it and have to do this in the utmost secure facilities.”

The Erasmus study was commissioned by the American National Institutes of Health.

The Dutch research team was led by Ron Fouchier at Rotterdam’s Erasmus Medical Centre. The researchers received a permit to conduct the study from the Dutch government.

NSABB chair Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist, told Science magazine’s Science Insider report last month that he had huge concerns about the potential havoc the man-made virus could unleash.

“I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,” Mr Keim said.

“I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”

Alison Caldwell ABC News

The research – known as the Erasmus study – alarmed the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a US government science committee.

It argued the information could be used by terrorists to orchestrate a biological attack using the virus.

The virologists were planning to publish their research in the respected journals Science and Nature.

But they have now agreed to redact their manuscripts at the request of the NSABB.

Dr Philip Cambell, Nature’s editor-in-chief, describes the NSABB’s recommendations as unprecedented.


What is even more a major mistake was that this research was allowed to go ahead in the first place.

Peter Collignon, professor of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at ANU


I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one.

      NSABB chair Paul Keim