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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 April 2005, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
Q&A: Asian Flu scare
Labs in Britain producing Asian Flu vaccine in late 1950s
Several thousand people died in the UK during the Asian Flu outbreak
Thousands of laboratories have been sent a potentially deadly flu strain by mistake.

But how has this happened and what are the risks?

Q: What has happened?

A company from the US has sent more than 3,700 labs across the world testing kits containing samples of Asian Flu.

The flu is considered deadly and the US government has called for the vials containing the strain to be destroyed.

The easiest way to destroy the flu samples is through incineration.

Q: What is Asian Flu?

There was an Asian Flu pandemic in 1957-8, which killed about 1m worldwide, including several thousand in the UK.

But the death rate was much less than the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, which killed 50m worldwide.

Part of the reason was because the Asian flu strain, H2N2, was quickly identified because of scientific advancements.

Vaccines were quickly produced by developed countries, such as the UK, which helped limit the impact of the outbreak.

Q: What are the risks of another outbreak?

Klaus Stohr, of the World Health Organisation, has warned if one person is infected it will spread very quickly as few people have the antibodies to fight the virus.

While the pandemic ended in 1958, the virus was still in circulation until 1968.

Therefore, anyone born after that date does not have any immunity to H2N2.

However, the risk of the flu escaping from a laboratory is considered very small because of the containment measures in place.

Leading UK flu expert John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary's School of Medicine, agreed the risk of an outbreak was small, but said the labs that had received the flu needed to destroy it immediately.

Q: What are the testing kits for?

The samples sent out were intended for use in routine internal quality control tests.

The tests enable labs to check their diagnostic equipment to see how accurately they are able to identify viruses.

If they fail to identify the virus accurately they can lose their licence.

H2N2 samples which are used are normally killed viruses, which mean they do not present a risk to anyone.

The only live viruses that are used tend to be less risky ones.

Q: Why has the virus been kept for so long?

Labs across the world will have samples of the virus, as they would other viruses such as smallpox which have also been eradicated, just in case it reappears and they need to develop a vaccine.

Q: Where are the labs?

The overwhelming majority of the centres are in the US and Canada.

Only 61 are in other countries, including Bermuda, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, France, Germany, China, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico The Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Taiwan. None are in the UK.


SEE ALSO
Labs told to destroy deadly virus
13 Apr 05 |  Americas
Flu
08 Apr 99 |  Medical notes

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