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US scientists clash with Indian health officials over swine flu mutations

23 March 2015

By Fiona Ibanichuka

Appeared in BioNews 795

A dispute has arisen between US scientists and Indian health officials over the virulence of the H1N1 swine flu virus.

According to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology the H1N1 strain of the flu virus causing the current swine flu outbreak in India has acquired mutations that may mean it is more dangerous than the virus that caused the previous outbreak of H1N1 in 2009, which resulted in a global pandemic.

India's recent swine flu outbreak which emerged in December last year has resulted in more than 1,500 deaths this year, already considerably more than the 125 lives that were claimed by the virus in the country six years ago.

Findings published in Cell Host & Microbe claim that the 2014-2015 H1N1 strain contains amino acids variations that enhance the virulence of the virus and may make it antigenically distinct from current swine flu vaccines. Indian health officials have contradicted this report by saying the strain is the same H1N1 virus that rose to prevalence in 2009.

It has been difficult to determine which strain has been responsible for the most recent outbreak in South East Asia as only two flu strains have had their genetic sequence information uploaded on to public databases and few data are known about the new strain.

Ram Sasisekharan, one of the authors of the paper, told Reuters that better surveillance is needed to control the current panic about the flu outbreak. 'There is a real need for aggressive surveillance to ensure that the anxiety and hysteria are brought down,' he said.

'When you do real-time surveillance, get organised... then you can come up with a better strategy to respond to the virus.'

India's National Institute of Virology said that the findings from the Cell Host & Microbe issue were 'incorrect'.

'We found that the strain analyzed in the said publication and the sequence data of the original H1N1 virus... did not show any of these mutations,' it said.

Other experts have also questioned the reports. Manish Kakkar, senior public health specialist at the Public Health Foundation of India, commented on the issue saying: 'There should be increased surveillance for influenza in India but at the same time we should not draw conclusions based on the sequence analysis of two strains.'

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