The great poultry vaccination quest continues. China’s Ministry of Agriculture vowed Tuesday to continue on its mission to give every single one of the country’s 15 billion poultry a shot of the bird flu vaccine.
AFP described the plan as “ambitious”, which may be underplaying it slightly. However, officials said they would come close to finishing the job this year and that this, combined with more stringent surveillance, means a lower bird flu risk this year.
Enter the World Health Organization with a syringe full of realism as an antidote to the official euphoria. Bird flu peaks in winter and vaccinations alone are insufficient to prevent the spread of the disease. Vaccinations could simply mask the virus, which can still be carried and spread by poultry whether they have received a shot or not.
Most worrying, though, is the news that China has yet to make good on promises made six months ago to share its virus samples from poultry killed by bird flu.
The official explanation from Beijing is that progress has been delayed by talks on the handover protocol but experts are at a loss as to why moving something from point A to point B is proving such a challenge.
The darker explanation given in some quarters is that China is playing for time in order to give domestic scientists a head start in the development of a human vaccine.
Initial clinical trials of a Chinese vaccine were declared successful and Beijing doesn’t want to share data that could allow foreign labs to overtake domestic efforts and steal both the glory and the international patents.
We should be encouraged by any evidence of Chinese concern for the intellectual property rights attached to the development of new drugs. But bragging rights on coming first in this particular field would be easily drowned out by the recriminations if one country’s failure to share information ended up costing lives.