In a letter (.pdf) dated April 25, Amy Patterson, associate director for science policy in the office of the director of the National Institutes of Health, “has refuted criticism of the way a meeting held to allow a biosecurity advisory group to review controversial bird flu studies was handled,” denying “the agenda was crafted to achieve a predetermined outcome,” the Canadian Press/Winnipeg Free Press writes. Patterson was “responding to a harsh critique of the meeting from Michael Osterholm, a member of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity [NSABB],” who, in a letter (.doc) to Patterson dated April 12, criticized “the agenda and speakers list” of the March 29-30 meeting, the news service writes (Branswell, 5/4).
“In a long-awaited study that helped prompt a contentious debate over the wisdom of conducting research that has the potential to help as well as harm, scientists reported Wednesday that they had engineered a mutant strain of [H5N1] bird flu that can spread easily between ferrets — a laboratory animal that responds to flu viruses much as people do,” the Los Angeles Times (Brown, 5/3). Published in the journal Nature, the study is “the first of two controversial papers about laboratory-enhanced versions of the deadly bird flu virus that initially sparked fears among U.S. biosecurity experts that it could be used as a recipe for a bioterrorism weapon,” Reuters writes (Steenhuysen, 5/2). The U.S. National Security Advisory Board on Biosecurity “had asked journals to hold off publishing” the studies, but “[t]he panel later dropped its objections after it became clear the engineered viruses were less virulent than had been feared,” according to the Washington Post (Brown, 5/2).
“The World Health Organization (WHO) hopes to hold a meeting late this fall to discuss ‘dual-use’ research issues raised in the controversy over publication of two studies involving lab-modified H5N1 viruses with increased transmissibility, a WHO official said,” CIDRAP News reports. “The WHO hosted a closed meeting of disease experts and government officials Feb 16 and 17 to discuss the two H5N1 studies,” CIDRAP notes, adding that “the WHO [on Wednesday] released a brief statement about its activities related to the H5N1 research controversy since the February meeting in Geneva.” Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general for health security and environment, said, “We hope to hold a second meeting to discuss the broader concerns related to potential dual [use] research in the late fall, if resources are available,” the news service notes.
“The controversy over research about potentially dangerous H5N1 viruses heated up [Thursday night] in a New York City debate that featured some of the leading voices exchanging blunt comments on the alleged risks and benefits of publishing or withholding the full details of the studies,” CIDRAP News reports. “The debate, sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, involved two members of the biosecurity advisory board that called for ‘redacting’ the two studies in question to delete details, along with scientists who want the full studies published and representatives of Science and Nature, the two journals involved,” the news service adds (Roos, 2/3).
In this post on KPLU’s “Humanosphere” blog, journalist Tom Paulson describes “five reasons why you should not panic” about the recent news that two research teams have created bird flu strains that are easily transmissible among ferrets, which are used as a lab model for humans. Fears that terrorists possibly could use the information prompted the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to request the scientists redact some information prior to publishing their study results and investigators worldwide to institute a 60-day moratorium on bird flu research, he notes. Paulson writes “that the scientific research community is already well on its way to improving our knowledge of H5N1,” and concludes, “Even if these two papers are censored, the traditional approach of unfettered and open exploration appears likely to continue” (2/7).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday released a 268-page annual report that “profiles a wide range of CDC influenza-related projects around the world, from flu surveillance in Indonesia to vaccine effectiveness studies in El Salvador and epidemiology training in Ghana,” CIDRAP News reports. The report also “describes the CDC’s collaborations with the World Health Organization (WHO), outlines projects it supports in about 40 countries, … describes specific studies undertaken in many of those countries,” “lists international training conferences it has sponsored, and describes the CDC program for sharing diagnostic test kits and reagents,” the news service writes. “Over the past six years the [international] program has undergone remarkable growth and has expanded to provide support to over 40 countries, all WHO regional offices and WHO headquarters,” the report notes, according to CIDRAP. “The report, covering 2011, is the third annual account of the agency’s global flu activities, which have expanded greatly in the past decade,” the news service adds (Roos, 10/30).
In this Journal Sentinel Online opinion piece, Thomas Inglesby, chief executive officer and director of the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC in Baltimore; Anita Cicero, chief operating officer and deputy director of the center; and D.A. Henderson, a distinguished scholar at the center, comment on a recent announcement by scientists that they have genetically modified a strain of H5N1 bird flu that is “capable of spreading through the air between ferrets that were physically separated from each other,” indicating “it would be readily transmissible by air between humans.” They write, “We believe the benefits of [purposefully engineer(ing) avian flu strains to become highly transmissible in humans] do not outweigh the risks.”
The WHO on Thursday “announced the deaths of two men from H5N1 avian influenza, one from Egypt and another from China whose death was reported earlier in the media,” CIDRAP News reports. Both men are suspected to have contracted the virus from avian sources, although an investigation into the man from China’s exposure to the virus is ongoing, according to news service. “The two infections and deaths push the WHO global H5N1 count to 576 cases and 339 deaths. According to WHO records, the number of H5N1 cases and deaths reported in 2011 so far are modestly higher than 2010 (60 cases versus 48, and 33 deaths versus 24),” CIDRAP writes (Schnirring, 1/5).
Author Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in this Foreign Policy opinion piece that the announcement that researchers from Norway and the U.S. have developed a supercontagious variety of bird flu “has highlighted a dilemma: How do you balance the universal mandate for scientific openness against the fear that terrorists or rogue states might follow the researchers’ work — using it as catastrophic cookbooks for global influenza contagion?” She continues, “Along with several older studies that are now garnering fresh attention, [the research] has revealed that the political world is completely unprepared for the synthetic-biology revolution” and notes “there are no consistent, internationally agreed-upon regulations governing synthetic biology, the extraordinarily popular and fruitful 21st-century field of genetic manipulation of microorganisms.”
Research into transmissible bird flu strains remains “urgent” despite flu investigators’ recent declaration of a “60-day moratorium on avian flu transmission because of the current controversy,” Yoshihiro Kawaoka of Tokyo University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “a lead researcher on one of two recent studies showing how H5N1 can be transmitted through airborne droplets” among ferrets, writes in a commentary published Wednesday in the journal Nature, Reuters reports. In December, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity “asked two leading journals, Nature and Science, to withhold details of both studies for fear it could be used by bioterrorists,” the news agency notes.