WHO doesn't have recent flu strains.

Catching up on Avian Flu news of the past week, I find that Nature is reporting (subscription required), "it is nearly eight months since the World Health Organization (WHO) last saw data on isolates from infected poultry in Asia".  And worse, "From the dozens of patients who caught the deadly H5N1 strain this year, the WHO has managed to obtain just six samples.  Affected countries are failing, or refusing, to share their human samples with the WHO's influenza programme in Geneva".

And this just when "trends suggest that the virus is becoming less virulent and more infectious -- two characteristics typical of pandemic flu strains".  Lovely.

The report continues, "The WHO's flu programme was last given access to a sample in October 2004, so it has no idea how the virus is changing in birds."

The upshot of the story is that countries wherein the virus is present are concerned about "losing control over information", want to develop their own vaccines, and are worried about intellectual property issues.  These points in particular are remarkable given that none of the countries affected is in much of a position to produce significant quantities of vaccine, which means that in order to protect their populations they will need outside assistance anyway.  Not to mention the affects on the rest of the world should an outbreak spread because local authorities were unprepared to deal with it. 

Evidently, "Some countries have provided samples but stipulated that the information can't be shared with the wider community".  Hmmm.  Excellent time to feel nationalistic.

Here are questions this story prompts me to ask:

Is anyone comparing the sequences of strains from human cases?  The answer would seem to be "no", which means we can't know whether more than one strain able to survive in humans is emerging, nor how those strains are changing over time at the molecular level.

How in the hell can anyone expect to prepare a vaccine against a bug we aren't getting samples of?  Who (WHO?) thinks we are actually prepared for any kind of widespread emerging infectious disease, let alone one as obvious a threat as H5N1?

The report ends by suggesting that discussions are underway to remedy the lack of cooperation and material transfer.  Somehow this doesn't make me feel any more comfortable.