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The New H7N9 Virus

A new strain of bird flu sickened at least seven people and killed two in eastern China, prompting Shanghai to issue an alert and the World Health Organization to investigate whether the virus could spread more widely.

Two people in Shanghai died and a third in Anhui province is in critical condition after being infected with the H7N9 strain, according to the Geneva-based WHO and China Central Television. A further four people infected in Jiangsu province are also in critical condition, according to the provincial government’s website.

No link between the cases has been identified, and no further infections have been found among 88 contacts of the first three patients, the WHO said, suggesting the virus isn’t easily transmissible between people. Another case was a 45-year- old woman who slaughters poultry at a farmers’ market in Nanjing, CCTV reported on its website today.

“This is of concern,” Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman, said by phone today. “These are the first cases we’ve seen in human beings. We’re watching this very closely.”

The virus is genetically an avian flu virus, and hasn’t mixed with human or pig pathogens, Hartl said. The WHO is looking into whether the virus has evolved to become more of a threat to humans, he said.

A failed government cover-up of the SARS — severe acute respiratory syndrome — epidemic has aroused suspicions, leaving some Chinese to question why the government waited 20 days to announce the two deaths from H7N9.

By way of explanation, the government said the H7N9 strain was new, and had yet to be included in China’s reporting system for infectious diseases. That’s why it took authorities longer to make the diagnosis and announce the results.

Medical experts have advised citizens to wash their hands more often and avoid having contact with dead animals to avoid infection.

In March, by coincidence, 110,000 dead pigs were fished out of the Huangpu River, the main source of drinking water for residents of Shanghai, China’s largest city. The government has not drawn any connection so far.

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