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A sharp controversy has broken out over newspaper reports that a top Japanese virologist has alleged China is concealing hundreds of human deaths from bird flu.

According to the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Masato Tashiro,  an advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO) and director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Tokyo, Japan, made the remarks at a gathering of virologists in Germany on 18 November.

But in an interview with the journal Science, Tashiro denies he made the allegation, saying he only meant to state that surveillance of bird flu in China is poor.

FAZ reported that Tashiro showed a table documenting several dozen outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain in China, with a final toll of at least 300 human deaths and more than 3,000 people in quarantine, at the meeting in Germany.

Official records list only three confirmed human cases of H5N1 in China, two of them fatal.

China's foreign ministry has called Tashiro's alleged remarks "baseless", and a spokesman for the WHO's influenza programme has said the agency has no reason to believe China is concealing human H5N1 cases.

Last week, New Scientist reported on its website that Tashiro had confirmed to its editorial staff that he "fears that China's official tally of laboratory-confirmed human bird flu fatalities is only the tip of the iceberg".

Tashiro told New Scientist that the figures he presented in Germany were merely examples of "unauthorised information" circulating in China.

His statement to Science, in which he described the FAZ report as "misleading", was contradicted by others attending the meeting, who claimed that the newspaper report was an accurate reflection of his remarks.

Link to full news story in Science

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