Persistence, persuasion pays off with critical global health security story

Photo: M M via FlickrLive poultry market in Xining, China.

Ongoing trade tensions between the U.S. and China are having an impact on the global economy and potentially U.S. biosecurity.

Late in the summer of 2018, New York Times reporter Emily Baumgaertner authored a story breaking the news that China had stopped providing samples of a flu virus – named H7N9 – with U.S. health authorities. The H7N9 bird flu [the influenza virus is named with H’s and N’s based on their protein makeup] has been circulating in China since 2013 and has spread through poultry farms.

The news was significant because the World Health Organization requires countries to share samples of potentially dangerous pathogens with one another, so that they have the ability to develop their own medical countermeasures to the pathogen. Getting samples of a virus strain are essential for public health officials to develop and test vaccines.

“Jeopardizing U.S. access to foreign pathogens and therapies to counter them undermines our nation’s ability to protect against infections which can spread globally within days,” Dr. Michael Callahan, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School, told Baumgaertner.

The H7N9 flu virus has evolved to become highly infectious among poultry and can infect humans. Since 2013, 1,567 people have been infected with the virus and 625 have died, says the United Nations. Most of those infected had handled sick animals.

Though the virus hasn’t demonstrated the ability to pass between people, it remains a pandemic threat. If the virus mutates to enable it to pass between people, the seasonal flu vaccine would provide no protection to the pathogen.

Emily Baumgaertner

Yet many Americans aren’t aware of the threat, so Baumgaertner, who covers global health in Washington D.C., began asking questions about what is the most worrisome aspect of the H7N9 outbreak.

She was surprised to find out that global health officials were worried about China’s reluctance to share virus samples. Since 2003, when there was an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in China, the country has been more transparent about outbreaks and sharing biological material.

In the early stages of the outbreak, the U.S. developed a vaccine to H7N9. That vaccine is in the nation’s national stockpile of pharmaceuticals. But H7N9 has evolved in the past few years, raising questions about whether that vaccine would work. To develop a vaccine for the very latest version of H7N9, the U.S. needs samples of the pathogen in its current form.

In April 2018, the U.S proposed to impose new tariffs on Chinese pharmaceutical products such as vaccines and medical devices. Though the U.S. didn’t follow through with tariffs on drug products, the threat remains while the U.S. and China continue to negotiate on trade.

Because of sensitivities about trade discussions between the U.S. and China, many people were reluctant to talk on the record to Baumgaertner about their alarm over the lack of virus samples from China. She spent countless hours making repeated phone calls to try to get people to talk to her. Sometimes she was shouted at to go away, she recounts in her How I Did It piece.

“Almost no one wanted to talk about this,” she says. “There was fear of exacerbating the situation and shutting down communication. I probably spent dozens of hours working to get things that were very sensitive onto the record.”

Her persistence paid off with her story, which raised alarm bells among legislators. Baumgaertner is still reporting on the story and can’t say if China has begun to share biological material as a result of her story.

To learn more about how Baumgaertner reported her story and why and how she got into reporting on global health, read the latest “How I Did It.

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