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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)


15 April 2005

Destruction of Asian Flu Virus Nearly Done, United Nations Says

U.S labs face greatest challenge in eliminating H2N2 samples

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – World Health Organization (WHO) officials reported April 15 that they anticipate laboratories in 16 countries would complete the destruction of potentially lethal Asian flu virus samples sent around the world in a testing proficiency exercise.

“For international laboratories [those outside the United States], we are relatively confident that the exercise can be accomplished by close of business tonight,” said Klaus Stohr, head of WHO’s influenza program, at a Geneva briefing April 15.

The H2N2 virus -- known as the Asian flu -- killed as many as 4 million people worldwide in a 1957-58 global flu pandemic, but has not reappeared in recent decades. As a result, health officials expect that most people would have little or no immunity if exposed to H2N2.

The H2N2 samples were sent to thousands of labs in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia during routine proficiency testing. To maintain ongoing accreditation, labs participate in an exercise in which they are sent samples by outside evaluators and must demonstrate their capabilities to correctly identify the samples.

Since the announcement of the H2N2 distribution April 12, international health officials have said they are not yet certain why Meridian Bioscience, the original manufacturer of the samples, included a virus that could pose a danger to public health.

The WHO and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are assuring the public that this episode has posed only a low threat to public health. They note that the samples were sent to biomedical labs, where people are trained routinely to be cautious about handling and containing hazardous substances.

“We have not observed any unusual patterns of influenza this year, and in fact the flu season is almost over in most parts of the country,” said CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding at a press briefing April 13. “So we have not had any H2 strains come to us this year [for testing and evaluation] at all. In fact, as I said, we haven't seen any [H2N2] since 1967 at CDC.”

Even though officials seem confident that this public health threat has been avoided, they are still assessing the magnitude of the incident. The College of American Pathologists, one of four organizations providing testing kits, reported that it had distributed 3,747 units.

A CDC Health Advisory document issued April 13 states that, in total, the four testing companies “sent proficiency testing surveys containing one or more samples of [influenza Type A] H2N2 to approximately 6,500 labs in the United States.”

CDC spokesman Tom Skinner told the Washington File that the agency is still tallying up a precise number of labs that received the samples as it works with all four companies to obtain complete information. For that reason, absolute destruction of the samples cannot yet be assured.

WHO also reports difficulty in tracking the samples. Some records indicated that samples had been sent to labs in Mexico and Lebanon, but the labs reported that they had never received the samples. Stohr said at his briefing that WHO will continue to seek an explanation for the discrepancy.

Stohr reported that labs in Hong Kong, Belgium, Singapore, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy and South Korea had confirmed destruction of their samples. Saudi Arabia, Bermuda, Brazil, Israel and Japan were working to destroy theirs.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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