China Says It Can Manage H7N9 Virus as Infections Rise

China tried to ease concerns that a new strain of bird influenza will spark an epidemic as authorities reported three more infections of the deadly H7N9 virus that’s killed six people since March.

“We are confident of dealing with this effectively,” Ma Xiaowei, a vice minister at the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said in an interview in Beijing yesterday. “We have adequate amount of anti-flu medicines, and we have also started to study the production of vaccines.”

Shares in Shanghai fell as much as 2 percent after trading resumed today following a two-day holiday. Chinese companies traded in Hong Kong as well as soybean futures fell April 5 on concern the outbreak will hurt demand in the world’s second-largest economy. The three newly reported infections raised the total number of cases to 21.

The new strain “may hurt investment sentiment in the very near term,” Citigroup Inc. analysts Minggao Shen and Ben Wei wrote in a note today. “If the cases of infection continue to rise in the following days, the transportation sector could be hit first, followed by the food and retailing sectors.”

Chinese health authorities notified the World Health Organization of an additional three laboratory-confirmed cases of human infection, the Geneva-based body said. Two of those were residents of Shanghai while the third was a 55-year-old man from Anhui, now in stable condition, the WHO said.

Timely Information

China will release information on the latest infections in a timely manner, and boost hospitals’ ability to handle cases, Liang Wannian, head of the H7N9 working group at the nation’s health commission, said at a briefing in Beijing today.

H7N9 has some of the genetic hallmarks of an easily transmissible virus, Ron Fouchier, a professor of molecular virology from the Netherlands, who showed how H5N1 avian flu could become airborne, said April 5.

More than 600 people have been infected with the H5N1 bird flu strain since 2003, and almost 60 percent have died, according to the WHO. Most had direct contact with infected poultry, and the virus hasn’t acquired the ability to spread easily between people.

The H1N1 virus responsible for the 2009 swine flu pandemic originated in pigs, then mixed with human and avian viruses, touching off the first global flu outbreak in more than 40 years and killing about 284,500 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health authorities are still investigating how individual patients were infected by H7N9, and the United Nations health agency isn’t recommending any special precautions at this stage, said Michael O’Leary, China representative of the WHO.

No Link

There has been no human-to-human transmission of H7N9, and no connection has been established yet between the virus and dead pigs found floating in a Shanghai river with bird flu, O’Leary said at the Beijing briefing today.

All confirmed cases of H7N9 have been in eastern China -- in Shanghai and in Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces.

The two new cases reported in Shanghai are a 59-year-old man from Anhui province who fell sick on March 25 and was hospitalized for treatment on April 4, and a 67-year-old male Shanghai native who became ill on March 29 and whose condition is stable, the city government press office said on its official microblog. Shanghai now has 10 confirmed infections and four deaths from the outbreak.

Air China Ltd., the nation’s biggest carrier by market value, fell as much as 8.4 percent in Shanghai trading today. China Southern Airlines Ltd. dropped as much as 6.8 percent and China Eastern Airlines Co. declined as much as 5.2 percent.

In Hong Kong, the benchmark Hang Seng Index slipped 0.3 percent as of 10:45 a.m. local time.

Economic Impact

“The H7N9 outbreak won’t have any material impact on the macro economy,” Tang Jianwei, an economist at Shanghai-based Bank of Communications Co., said in a telephone interview yesterday. “Even for SARS, the dip in economic growth lasted only one quarter and rebounded quite strongly afterwards.”

Government data show economic expansion slowed to 7.9 percent in the second quarter of 2003, the peak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, epidemic, from 10.8 percent in the previous three months. Growth picked up to 9.6 percent in the third quarter.

China’s economy expanded 7.9 percent in the last three months of 2012 from a year earlier, the first acceleration in eight quarters, according to National Bureau of Statistics figures. If the bird flu situation deteriorates, Bank of America Corp. may lower its second-quarter growth estimate to below 8 percent from 8.1 percent, Lu Ting, the bank’s Hong Kong-based head of Greater China economics, wrote in an April 5 report.

Prior Experience

Even so, “past experiences told us that the negative impact from such epidemics won’t last too long and ensuing pent-up demand could be strong, so there is no need for panic in the financial markets,” Lu said.

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has distributed testing reagents for the H7N9 virus to 409 flu monitoring sites across the country, the official Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday. The body is also assessing the pandemic risks of H7N9 and working out strategies with relevant international experts, it said.

The National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment has warned the public against touching or eating sick or dead poultry and to cook eggs and poultry products thoroughly, Xinhua said.

Poultry Markets

The cities of Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou have ordered live poultry markets to close and have seized birds, according to reports in state media. In Hangzhou, where two of three people diagnosed with the disease have died, trade at a farm-produce market was suspended after the virus was found in quail and a cull started on April 6, Xinhua said.

Zhong Nanshan, director of the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases and China’s official specialist on SARS during the deadly 2003 outbreak, called for screening to be expanded beyond poultry.

“Analysis shows that the H7N9 virus comes from fowl, including poultry, wild fowl, migrating birds and pigeons,” Zhong said in a televised speech posted on state-owned broadcaster CCTV’s website yesterday. “We should expand the range of screening as not so many people have direct contact with poultry.”

China’s Food and Drug Administration said it expedited approval of intravenous anti-influenza drug Peramivir “to satisfy demand.” The drug is “effective and provides an alternative to patients who cannot inhale or take drugs orally,” according to a statement on its website on April 6.

Shares of Nasdaq-listed BioCryst Pharmaceuticals Inc., the Durham, North Carolina-based company that developed the drug, surged 29 percent on April 5.