Chinese Bird Flu 2013: Is It Developing Immunity to Our Best Treatments?

In a troubling new development regarding the latest version of avian influenza, popularly known as bird flu, health authorities have revealed that the newest strain of the disease has developed resistance to Tamiflu, one of the standard anti-flu drugs utilized to fight previous outbreaks. Although the disease has not evolved to a level that would cause concern for a full-blown pandemic, health official remarked the sudden evolution of resistance was worrying.

The latest news came from the Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal that commands much respect in the medical community. Tamiflu was the currently accepted treatment, and this new resistance is raising concern among public health authorities focused on studying and planning for the disease if it becomes a wider public health threat.

The Lancet study was conducted on a group of 14 patients who were sick with H7N9, the designation of the latest strain of avian influenza in eastern China. All of the patients had developed pneumonia and nearly half needed mechanical ventilation. Tamiflu was administered to the patients and a number of them saw improvement in their condition.

However, the treatment failed in three patients. When doctors conducted genetic testing of the virus that was within the patients, the results emerged. The virus variant within these patients had mutated resistance to neuraminidase inhibitors, the group of medicines that include the drug Tamiflu. The Lancet report states:

"The apparent ease with which antiviral resistance emerges in A/H7N9 viruses is concerning; it needs to be closely monitored and considered in future pandemic response plans."

Rosche, the pharmaceutical corporation that manufactures Tamiflu, was quick to respond to the news. In an e-mail to Bloomberg News Silvia Dobry, a spokeswoman for Rosche said "Rates of Tamiflu resistance remain low globally, although Roche takes the issue of resistance very seriously and collaborates with international organizations and authorities to monitor the situation."

The current H7N9 outbreak has had a confirmed 131 infections and 36 people since its initial outbreak earlier this year. Nearly 3 weeks have passed since the last known case was reported on May 8th. The Chinese government has been much more aggressive in fighting this outbreak compared to previous diseases such as the 2002 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The People's Daily, the ruling Chinese Communist Party's newspaper, urged government agencies to be open with regards to information about the disease.

The Chinese government was also through in ensuring the poultry that has had the threat of infection are culled to prevent the spread of the disease. In Guangdong, over 90,000 birds were slaughtered after authorities detected a single case of H7N9. Chinese authorities have also closed poultry markets in affected areas as well in an attempt to limit the spread of the disease through human animal contact.

The World Health Organization has estimated that the current H7N9 outbreak has caused $6.5 billion in losses to the Chinese economy.

The American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has started to take steps to prepare for a possible outbreak of the disease on American soil. They have isolated strains of the virus needed to begin development of a vaccine and are conducting their own research into exactly how easily H7N9 can spread by various means such as airborne transmission.

The newest development may be worrying but health authorities are taking the situation incredibly seriously. As government institutions attempt to formulate a plan to deal with the disease before it turns into a crisis, there is little we can do but wait and hope they are successful.