A rare summer bird flu case and a delay in the latest vaccine for poultry could add up to a severe outbreak of the deadly virus this winter, an expert warned as he urged the government to step up monitoring of the disease.
Some 1,000 birds were slaughtered at Mong Kok's bird garden earlier this month after traces of the lethal H5N1 virus were found, while a mainland research team has delayed the announcement of a new vaccine, which had been expected this month, leaving poultry in Hong Kong with little protection from the rapidly mutating virus.
'The fact that a contagious sample has been found in summer is one of the signs showing that the risk of an outbreak is getting closer, as the virus is usually more active in winter,' said Professor Yuen Kwok-yung head of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong.
'More wild birds we picked up this year were infected with H5N1 bird flu,' Yuen said, citing the Mong Kok case, which is believed to have been the result of a wild bird flying into the market.
While bird flu in wild birds is thought to pose little threat to humans, the consumption or handling of infected poultry is believed to be one way the virus crosses the species barrier.
Yet poultry in the city's farms and wet markets are still given a first-generation vaccine against the older H5N2, not the form of H5N1 most often found in samples.
'The protection offered to a bird is almost equal to zero,' Yuen said.
'Given that the development of the vaccine cannot catch up with the [mutation] pace of the virus, the gap between has created room for an outbreak.'
The mainland research team is the world leader in the search for a bird flu vaccine. The death rate for H1N1 internationally is about 50 per cent.
Meanwhile, a HK$1 billion fund set up by the government to research medical problems, including bird flu, opens for applications today.
The Medical Research Fund - the result of a merger last year between the Health and Health Services Research Fund and the Research Fund for Control of Infectious Disease - will use the money to fund academic research over the next five to six years. Applications will close on November 16.
The Food and Health Bureau hopes the fund will help the city take advantage of its strength in paediatrics, neuroscience, clinical genetics and clinical trials.
The number of people killed worldwide by bird flu in its various forms since the first outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997