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Bird flu: Was the virus deliberately introduced?

The commercial angle to the whole bird flu business "should be looked at very carefully,".

india Updated: Feb 20, 2006 13:31 IST

The government's announcement of bird flu deaths in Maharashtra has created an unnecessary panic and how the virus arrived in a remote place like Nandurbar needs "detailed investigations," including the possibility of deliberate introduction, according to a leading virologist.

Meanwhile health ministry officials investigating the episode said that Newcastle virus - that causes similar symptoms like bird flu - has also been isolated from the dead birds lending credence to the poultry industry claims that the deaths were not entirely due to bird flu.

"I am worried and surprised about the whole thing," says Kalyan Banerjee, former director of the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune who is also a member of the government committee advising about bioterrorism.

Transmission of flu from birds to humans is very difficult and the fears have been over blown, Banerjee saidin a telephone interview.

The 90-odd persons in some 30 countries who have so far died of this virus were bird handlers and no single human-to-human transmission has taken place.

The commercial angle to the whole bird flu business "should be looked at very carefully," says Banerjee who is one of many scientists who believe that what struck Surat in 1994 was not plague.

"And suddenly more than 30,000 poultry birds die of bird flu in a remote place," says Banerjee.

Banerjee says he is mystified by the fact that the virus showed up in a remote place that is not an international border or on the path of migratory birds that could possibly bring the virus. "This needs detailed investigations," he said. Asked if the virus could have been introduced deliberately he said "all aspects" must be investigated.

S Ghosh, a senior scientist at the Venkateswara Hatcheries Limited -- India's largest supplier of egg laying breeds -- said that the bird deaths this year were mostly caused by Newcastle virus due to weather and inadequacies in vaccination.

Health ministry officials investigating the bird flu breakout saidthat while the bird flu virus strain H5N1 was isolated by the Bhopal high security laboratory, "the Newcastle virus was also found in the samples."

Ghosh said it was unfortunate that the government created the panic before analysing more samples from dead and living birds and also testing for the virulence of the H5N1 strain through gene sequencing studies. He said not all H5N1 strains are virulent.

The health ministry officials say that in the coming days more samples will be analysed not only from poultry birds but also from the egrets and ibis birds found in the area, which they believe might have been the carriers.

First Published: Feb 20, 2006 13:31 IST