Avian Flu, and vaccination, in China

Everyone has probably  heard that China has confirmed human cases of the H5N1 flu ("China Reports Second Bird Flu Death", Reuters via NY Times).  The Chinese government now acknowledges that they have a "serious epidemic" (CNN), and has culled more than twenty million birds in response to localized outbreaks.

In an attempt to keep control of the situation, "China Threatens Police Action in Fight on Bird Flu" (Reuters via NY Times).  I find particularly interesting the new regulations forbidding actions that restrict accurate reporting of the progress of the virus; "Any practices which affect the reporting of epidemic diseases, including deception, false or late reporting, are forbidden," according to Vice Agriculture Minister Yin Chengjie.  As I wrote last spring (The Economic Consequences of Chinese Pandemic Un-Preparedness), the structure of governmental power in China appears to have changed significantly over the last few years.  According to people who spend significant amounts of time in country, the central government is no longer able to exert much authority over local governments, nor can it count on accurate information coming in from the provinces.  It will be interesting to see if the new regulations have an impact on disease reporting.  With less than clear initial explanations of the enormous benzene spill near Harbin (NY Times), it may be awhile before up front communication is the norm.

The government has also announced plans to vaccinate 14 billion birds to combat further spread.  Of course, the first question everyone is asking is where they are going to come up with that much vaccine.  Everyone in the west seems to agree that the domestic Chinese poultry vaccine production capacity is only in the neighborhood of several hundred million doses annually, which suggests they face significant challenges in vaccinating more than 10 billion birds anytime soon.  An article in the International Herald Tribune casts doubt on the feasibility of this strategy, with veterinary experts expressing blunt skepticism; "Dr. Leon Russell, president of the World Veterinary Association, said '..For the life of me, I can't figure out how China will vaccinate billions of chickens'."

(UPDATE 28 November 05):  Last Thursday's Nature has a short news piece claiming that China has already vaccinated 8 billion birds and that "the country's ten vaccine producers can make 16 billion doses of vaccine per year".  That is quite a contrast to other numbers I've read, and definitely disagrees with the rest of this post.