Saudi Arabia in deadly flu virus alert

Scientists in Saudi Arabia and 17 other countries have been warned to destroy thousands of vials of a lethal virus which, if it escaped, could trigger the long-feared global flu pandemic.

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By  Stuart Qualtrough Published  April 18, 2005

Scientists in Saudi Arabia and 17 other countries have been warned to destroy thousands of vials of a lethal virus which, if it escaped, could trigger the long-feared global flu pandemic, the World Health Organisation has revealed. The samples of virus H2N2, which caused 4 million deaths in the 1957 flu pandemic, were sent to more than 3,700 laboratories by a leading American medical institution several months ago. However, it emerged that the potentially deadly distribution was discovered only through a combination of luck and human error at a laboratory in Vancouver, Canada. The original mistake was made in October last year in Northfield, Illinois, and home to the headquarters of the College of American Pathologists. The college sends out standardised flu testing kits to labs around the world, each containing vials of different strains of flu virus to enable technicians to ensure that their own testing equipment and reagents are working properly. This time included with the modern strains of flu virus was the killer Asian flu known as H2N2. The virus went to Saudi Arabia and Lebanon as well as Bermuda, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Korean Republic, Singapore, Taiwan and labs in the US. In Vancouver, British Columbia, technicians ran a sample from the panel containing H2N2 under the same flume hood as a sample from a patient - a practice that would not be allowed in many laboratories because of the risk of contamination, Frank Plummer, director of the National Microbiological Laboratory said. The patient sample became contaminated. "The panel sample has very very high level of virus," Canada's chief public health officer, David Butler-Jones, said. "There was enough that it gave a low-level positive result in the patient sample." Mr Plummer went on to reveal that the patient in Vancouver was not suffering flu symptoms, and the test was administered as a matter of routine. The sample then was forwarded to the national laboratory - again a matter of pure chance as regional facilities generally send only 25% of their samples for the more detailed analysis capable of identifying the flu strain as the deadly H2N2. "There is certainly a kind of irony here," Mr Plummer said last month, "but it is a happy sort of error." The result — indicating the presence of H2N2 in a human for the first time in nearly 40 years — triggered an investigation. The patient was retested and found not to have H2N2, and the source of the contamination was traced to the panel on March 26. Klaus Stohr, who heads the World Health Organisation's influenza programme, said the virus could cause a global flu outbreak. "It was an unwise decision to send it out," he said. Asian flu did its deadliest work in 1957, until populations began to develop immunity to it and vaccines were developed. The strain lingered until 1968, vanishing as the next pandemic arrived — Hong Kong flu, or H3N2. This means that people born after 1968 have not developed immunity to H2N2.

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