The Agriculture Ministry's propaganda office could not be reached by phone and did not immediately respond to a faxed list of questions.
Other information gleaned from the genetic data was that the H7N9 virus was what scientists call a "gene re-assortant" — in which three bird viruses swapped genes among themselves — undergoing changes that allowed it to adapt more easily, though not fully, to human hosts, WHO's Tashiro said. One change has allowed it to lodge onto the surfaces of cells of mammals, making it easier to infect humans.
"The tentative assessment of this virus is that it may cause human infection or epidemic. It is still not yet adapted to humans completely, but important factors have already changed," Tashiro said.
In China, the public is highly sensitized to news of infectious disease outbreaks, with many still recalling the SARS pneumonia scare a decade ago, when the government stayed silent while rumors circulated for weeks of an unidentified disease in southern Guangdong province. The cover-up contributed to the spread of the virus to many parts of China and to two dozen other countries, killing hundreds of people.
While many foreign health experts say China is being far more forthcoming this time than during the SARS scare, the government still faces credibility questions at home as it tries to juggle the need to respond to calls by the public for more information and the need to prevent unnecessary panic.
"The H7N9 bird flu is currently approaching. Ten years ago, the lesson learned in fighting SARS was: The greatest enemy is not the virus, but covering up the truth; the best medicine is not steroids, but transparency and trust," Yang Yu, a commentator with state broadcaster CCTV, said in a post on his microblog. "No matter what H7N9 is, now, the time to test the progress of Chinese society over the past 10 years has come."
Associated Press researcher Flora Ji contributed to this report.
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