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Homeland Security

23 February 2007

U.S. Officials Offer Pandemic Flu Aid in Egypt, Switzerland

Health agency makes 2,000 influenza virus genomes available worldwide

Washington -- During a five-day visit to Cairo, Egypt, and Geneva, officials from U.S. agencies offered help to the government of Egypt in controlling the spread of avian influenza among birds there, and met with World Health Organization (WHO) leaders to discuss international cooperation in preventing and responding to avian and pandemic influenza.

In Cairo, Ambassador John Lange, the Department of State's Special Representative for Avian and Pandemic Influenza, led a team of representatives from six U.S. government health, agriculture and international assistance agencies to meet with Egypt's ministers of health and agriculture.

"[We] came away very impressed by the government of Egypt's efforts," Lange said during a February 23 press briefing at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva.

Lange commended the minister of health, Dr. Hatem el-Gabali, for "the transparency that the government of Egypt has shown" in sharing samples of the nation's avian flu viruses with the world. Egypt has reported 22 human cases of avian flu and 13 deaths.

The U.S. ambassador also commended Minister of Agriculture Amin Abaza for developing an effective program of vaccination for poultry in the commercial sector.

"We look on this not as merely a health or agriculture issue," Lange said. "It's broader, and involves the totality of governments. [The U.S.] national implementation plan tasks all U.S. government departments and agencies with acting and preparing for a possible pandemic."

WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization also are providing support to Egypt, he added.


In Geneva, Lange said, he and Dr. David Bell, coordinator of the Influenza Unit in the Office of Global Health Affairs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, met with WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan and Dr. David Heymann, WHO acting assistant director-general for communicable diseases.

One focus of the discussion, Lange said, "was how this global threat requires a global response. In that regard, we discussed the critical importance of sharing of samples [of avian flu viruses in each country] in order to do risk assessment."

WHO needs samples of the virus to follow its path around the globe and assess the risk that the virus could mutate to become easily transmissible among people, he added.

"We also discussed the need to facilitate broader and more equitable regional distribution of production capacity for influenza vaccine," Lange said.

Earlier in February, Indonesian officials said they would stop sharing virus samples with WHO unless an agreement could be reached that would guarantee the country access to affordable vaccines against avian influenza. On February 16, Siti Fadillah Supari, Indonesia's minister of health and WHO's Heymann released a statement saying Indonesia would again share avian flu viruses with the WHO Network of Collaborating Centers for Influenza. Indonesia has not yet begun sharing samples with WHO, which will meet with Asian nations in March to discuss access to vaccines for all countries.

"It's simply a matter of working out with the governments of the world and with the leadership of the World Health Organization the ways in which we will proceed in this regard," Lange said.


In the United States, scientists from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced February 21 that genetic blueprints of more than 2,000 human and avian influenza viruses taken from samples around the world now are available in a public database to scientists everywhere for use in developing new vaccines and therapies.

The effort, coordinated by the NIH-funded Influenza Genome Sequencing Project, began in 2004.

"This information will help scientists understand how influenza viruses evolve and spread," NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni said in a February 21 statement, "and it will aid in the development of new flu vaccines, therapies and diagnostics."

The project has been carried out at the NIAID-funded Microbial Sequencing Center, which will sequence more flu strains and samples and make all sequence data freely available to the scientific community and the public through GenBank, an Internet-accessible database of genetic sequences maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information at NIH's National Library of Medicine, another major contributor to the project.

Collaborators on the project include the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the World Organization for Animal Health/Food and Agriculture Organization Reference Laboratory for Newcastle Disease and Avian Influenza in Padova, Italy; and Canterbury Health Laboratories in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Access to the influenza virus sequence data is available at NIAID's Influenza Genome Sequencing Project or GenBank.

The full text of Lange's opening statement and an audio link to his speech can be found on the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva Web site.

For more information on U.S. and international efforts to combat avian influenza, see Bird Flu (Avian Influenza).

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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