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China denies bird flu cover-up

A man reaches into a pen to catch a chicken at a market in Beijing.
A man reaches into a pen to catch a chicken at a market in Beijing.

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BANGKOK, Thailand (Reuters) -- China has denied a report by Britain's New Scientist that the avian flu, which has swept through 10 Asian countries and killed eight people, began in the world's most populous nation, probably in the first half of 2003.

"It is purely a guess, a groundless guess," China Vice Agriculture Minister Qi Jingfa told reporters in Bangkok. "We have had very strict surveillance."

The New Scientist said on Wednesday an "official cover-up and questionable farming practices" allowed Asia's outbreak of bird flu to turn into an epidemic.

"A combination of official cover-up and questionable farming practices allowed it to turn into the epidemic now under way," the weekly magazine said.

A decision by China's poultry producers to vaccinate birds after an outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997 may have been a mistake and could have contributed to the problem, it said.

Hong Kong conducted a mass slaughter of chickens when the H5N1 bird flu killed six people. To protect its poultry, Chinese producers used an inactivated H5N1 virus after the outbreak.

"If the vaccine is not a good match for the virus -- as is the case with the H5N1 strain now sweeping Asia -- it can still replicate, but most animals do not show signs of the disease," the magazine said.

The Chinese vice agriculture minister was in Bangkok to attend a conference on the birdflu crisis that pledged a joint fight against a virus which poses a serious threat to economies and public health in the region.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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