Thursday, August 10, 2006

Release of Indonesian avian, human H5N1 viruses may offer insights on spread

Release of Indonesian avian, human H5N1 viruses may offer insights on spread
18:21:18 EDT Aug 10, 2006
Canadian Press: HELEN BRANSWELL, The Canadian Press
(CP) - The scientific community may soon have a clearer picture of what is going on with the H5N1 avian flu virus in Indonesia, the country which most concerns many experts following the worrisome virus.

After hoarding for months the genetic blueprints of the viruses isolated from both poultry and people, Indonesian officials have done an about-face and are sharing a large number of both avian and human viral isolates.

A scientist with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization confirmed Thursday that Indonesia recently sent 91 avian viruses to the Geelong Laboratory in Australia, a reference lab for the FAO.

"We managed to get 91 isolates out to Geelong about two weeks ago. Took us months to get it to happen. But they arrived I think about 10 days ago or something like that - in good condition," Dr. Peter Roeder, an animal health officer with the Rome-based FAO, said in an interview.

"It will make a tremendous difference in the interpretation of the sequence data of the human viruses."

Last week the country's health minister, Siti Fadilah Supari, announced that Indonesia wanted the genetic sequences of all the viruses isolated from human cases in Indonesia to be put into open access databases where any scientist could study them.

The ability to compare the viruses spreading through bird populations to the ones that have jumped into people should provide badly needed insight into the H5N1 situation in Indonesia, where investigators have often been stumped trying to determine how people contracted the virus. A number of investigations have shown few if any links between human cases and infected birds.

The Geelong lab has been working to sequence the avian viruses and should have some initial results any day now, Roeder said. That information will be placed in the public domain, he added.

"As soon as the sequence data become available to the government of Indonesia we have an agreement with them that they'll make it available to the international community."

Sequence data for viruses isolated from about 40 human cases has in recent days been placed in public access databases. When the World Health Organization learned Indonesia was willing to share the data, it asked the two laboratories that had sequenced the viruses for Indonesia to put the information into the public domain. Up until then the data had been stored in a password-protected database accessible only to scientists working for the WHO or for laboratories that do this type of work for the organization.

The two labs quickly complied with the WHO request.

Last Friday, scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta transferred the data into the open access database housed by the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory, whose computers also host the password protected databank. The CDC was also in the process of logging the material into a second public access database, Genbank, the director of the agency's influenza division, Dr. Nancy Cox, said earlier this week.

The second laboratory, at the University of Hong Kong, is run by noted influenza expert Dr. Malik Peiris. In an interview Thursday, he confirmed that his team put the data into the Los Alamos database last Saturday.

Dr. Ilaria Capua, an Italian veterinary virologist who has spearheaded a campaign to put sequence data for all H5N1 viruses in the public domain, said Indonesia's move may be part of a trend to greater openness.

"There is a growing consensus on this data sharing," Capua, who runs an avian influenza reference laboratory for the International Organization for Animal Health, said from Rome.

"I would applaud Indonesia and then invite all the other health ministers (of affected countries) to follow that example. And then the veterinary isolates will come."

As for the human isolates, Peiris said there is a lot of overlap between the viruses his lab sequenced and the work done by the CDC.

Peiris said the viruses isolated from human cases showed no evidence of having swapped genes - the process is called reassortment - with flu viruses from humans, pigs or other mammals. Reassortment is one of the ways an avian flu virus could acquire the ability to spread easily to and among people, a development that would lead to a flu pandemic.

"There isn't anything (evident in the human isolates) that rings particular alarm bells as such," Peiris said.

But he suggested the viruses that infected people in Indonesia are only one part of the picture of what is going on there.

"It is probably important to have more avian virus sequences from the same geographical areas where the human cases are coming from," he said from Hong Kong.

Experts tracking the dangerous and economically devastating H5N1 virus have been concerned about Indonesia, where inadequate control methods have led to widespread outbreaks across the vast and densely populated archipelago.

Indonesia trailed other affected Asian countries in developing human cases, marking its first in July 2005. But since then cases in Indonesia have cropped up at a rate unparalleled elsewhere. And the country's H5N1 death toll recently surpassed that of Vietnam to make Indonesia the country that has lost the most lives to the virus.

Indonesia has logged 56 confirmed human cases, 44 of which have been fatal. Globally 236 cases of H5N1 infection have been confirmed in 10 countries since late 2003 and 138 of those people have died.

© The Canadian Press, 2006


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home