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WHO still searching for missing flu samples

/ Source: The Associated Press

South Korea has joined Mexico and Lebanon as countries that have yet to destroy all samples of the killer influenza virus they received as part of routine test kits, the U.N. health agency said Tuesday.

But all three countries have made progress in tracing the missing shipments from the United States, said Klaus Stohr, influenza chief of the World Health Organization.

Because of fears of a global pandemic should the virus be released, WHO has been urging destruction of the 50-year-old H2N2 virus included in kits sent to 61 laboratories in 18 countries outside the United States.

“We believe that within the next hours, perhaps days, the matter will be resolved,” Stohr told reporters.

U.S. laboratories, which received the vast majority of the 3,747 kits sent out in October and February, have destroyed more than 98 percent of them, Stohr said.

Stohr said the shipper of the sample that went astray in Lebanon had turned it over to another shipper for local delivery, but it never arrived at the intended laboratory and authorities were now seeking to locate the kit.

The missing shipment to Mexico has been tracked down in a bonded warehouse, and “a team is now on its way” there to destroy it, he said.

Three South Korean laboratories said they never received kits sent last year, but the shipper has signatures indicating the packages were delivered and an attempt is being made to determine what happened to them, Stohr said.

Chile said a kit it sent back to the United States in March remains unaccounted for, but WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng said the agency understood that the shipper in Texas had attested that the kit materials were destroyed.

The H2N2 virus, the “Asian flu” strain of 1957, killed between 1 million and 4 million people. It has not been included in flu vaccines since 1968, and anyone born after that date has little or no immunity to it.

Most of the samples were sent starting at the request of the College of American Pathologists, which helps labs test their ability to identify microbes.

“It was extremely unwise and shortsighted,” Stohr said. “If you want somebody to prove his capacity in doing certain microbiological tests, if you can do this with a very benign virus, why would you put a very pathogenic virus which can cause a pandemic in such proficiency testing?”

He said that once the H2N2 samples are destroyed, health authorities will look into tightening controls on the distribution of microbes. He and noted that until health authorities raised the alarm over the testing kits two weeks ago it was possible to buy H2N2 over the Internet.