Researchers of H5N1 bird flu virus “are set to wrap up a two-day meeting on the issue Friday with international experts at the World Health Organization in Geneva” with the aim of settling controversy over the work of two research teams that created genetically altered viral strains that are easily transmissible among ferrets, a laboratory model for humans, the Associated Press reports (Mason, 2/17). “The meeting may reach some consensus on a few immediate issues, such as what parts of the studies should be published, and who might qualify for access to the full papers on a ‘need-to-know’ basis,” according to the Nature News Blog (Butler, 2/16).
“Details of a genetically altered strain of the deadly avian flu virus are ‘a grave concern’ to public safety and should be kept under wraps,” the 23-member National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity declared Tuesday “[i]n a letter released by the journals Science (.pdf) and Nature,” CNN reports (1/31). “The board explains that its main concern was that publishing the experiments in detail could help someone to develop viruses for harmful purposes,” BBC News writes, adding, “But it acknowledges the work holds ‘clear benefits’ in alerting humanity to the potential H5N1 threat, and that it could lead to greater preparation and potential development of novel strategies for disease control” (Walsh, 1/31).
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.
NIH Official Discusses Reaction To Bird Flu Studies, Development Of Publishing Mechanism In Nature Interview
Nature interviews Amy Patterson, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Science Policy, which administers the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), about the board’s decision in December to advise against full publication of “two papers on avian flu (H5N1) [that] could pose a biosecurity risk if published in their entirety.” Patterson discusses the efforts of the board and the “international flu community” to “develop a mechanism by which important details from the papers could be withheld from the general public while remaining accessible to public health officials and researchers studying the virus,” Nature writes (Ledford, 1/11).
In this Reuters opinion piece, New York-based writer Peter Christian Hall responds to “the U.S. government’s move to restrict publication of vital research into H5N1 avian flu,” writing, “This unprecedented interference in the field of biology could hinder research and hamper responsiveness in distant lands plagued by H5N1,” yet “no one seems to be challenging a key assumption — that H5N1 could make a useful weapon. It wouldn’t.”
The NIH is expected on February 1 to release a statement explaining how the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) reached a decision in November to recommend “that two scientific papers describing research that created strains of bird flu potentially transmissible in humans should be published only if key details are omitted,” for fear “that terrorists or hostile nations could learn how to cause a pandemic,” a New York Times editorial by Philip Boffey, Times science editorial writer, states.
Federal officials have asked the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) “to review the state of the science looking at human transmission of deadly bird flu, says panel chief Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University,” USA Today reports. “In December, the NSABB asked the journals, Science and Nature, to withhold details of studies that showed how to make the flu strain transmissible between ferrets, the closest mammal model for human-to-human transmission of the bug,” the newspaper notes. “‘We are now involved in a broader review,’ Keim says. … ‘This research is valuable, but saying this is just “basic” research ignores that influenza is a very special pathogen,’ Keim adds,” according to the newspaper (Vergano, 1/10).
“An international debate over whether to censor new research on bird flu may soon prove academic, as other laboratories close in on similar findings showing how one of the most deadly viruses could mutate to be transmitted from one person to another,” Reuters reports. Last year, two teams of researchers reported study results “that showed how the H5N1 [bird flu] virus can be transmitted through airborne droplets between ferrets, a model for studying influenza in humans,” and the findings prompted the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) in December to advise “two leading journals, Nature and Science, to withhold details of the research for fear it could be used by bioterrorists,” the news service writes.