China has withheld samples of deadly avian influenza strain from U.S. researchers: NYT

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China has not sent samples of the H7N9 avian flu strain to U.S. researchers, according to The New York Times. (Glenn Fawcett/DOD)

The routine exchange of important vaccine development material may have become a victim of the trade war between the U.S. and China.

More than a year after a serious H7N9 avian influenza outbreak kicked up in China, the country still hasn’t sent samples of the viral strain to researchers in the U.S. to help them develop vaccines and drugs, according to The New York Times.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still waiting on samples to conduct important research, the newspaper reports, citing confirmations from the National Security Council and the World Health Organization. China and other governments have previously committed to sharing samples of strains with pandemic potential “in a timely manner.” Previously, the process had become routine, according to the newspaper.

Andrew C. Weber, a former Pentagon official managing biological defense, told the publication the country's refusal to send samples is "scandalous" and that many people "could die needlessly if China denies international access to samples.”

The NIH has said the H7N9 strain currently doesn’t transmit easily between humans. But if it mutates to be easily transmissible, H7N9 has pandemic potential because most people have little to no immunity. To date, the strain has killed 39% of people who have become infected, according to the agency. 

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Dr. Larry Kerr, the HHS’ director of pandemics and emerging threats, told the Times the process of sending and receiving viral samples normally takes several months. But due to the recent trade dispute between the U.S. and China, experts worry there could be a further delay in shipments.

The H7N9 strain popped up in China in 2013, according to the WHO, and infected 766 people there between 2016 and 2017 in its largest outbreak to date, according to the CDC. In the wake of the outbreak, the CDC reported it was conducting research into the strain.

Sanofi has a vaccine candidate in development, and the program has been assisted by the U.S. government and the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Multiple Chinese companies have initiated vaccine programs against the virus, as well.

RELATED: NIH pushes Sanofi’s new H7N9 bird flu vaccine into human tests

Earlier this year, the NIH reported that it’s starting two human trials of Sanofi’s candidate. Some participants in the Sanofi trials will receive a GlaxoSmithKline adjuvant.