“A new virus from the same family as SARS which sparked a global alert in September has now killed two people in Saudi Arabia, and total cases there and in Qatar have reached six, the World Health Organization said” on Friday, Reuters reports (Kelland, 11/23). “Of the six known cases … two have been fatal” and “[o]nly two were clearly connected,” as they were members of the same family, according to the New York Times (McNeil, 11/23). In 2003, nearly 8,500 people worldwide were infected by SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, and about 900 of those people died, the Associated Press/CBS News reports. “The WHO said it was continuing to work with the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other international health partners to gain a better understanding of the [current] virus,” the news service notes (11/23).
“A global study mapping human diseases that come from animals like tuberculosis, AIDS, bird flu or Rift Valley fever has found that just 13 such diseases are responsible for 2.4 billion cases of human illness and 2.2 million deaths a year,” Reuters reports (Kelland, 7/5). “The report, which was conducted by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the Institute of Zoology (U.K.) and the Hanoi School of Public Health in Vietnam, maps poverty, livestock-keeping and the diseases humans get from animals, and presents a ‘top 20’ list of geographical hotspots,” an ILRI press release states (7/5). The study “found that Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Tanzania, as well as India have the highest zoonotic disease burdens, with widespread illness and death,” Reuters writes.
“White House science adviser John Holdren has replied [.pdf] to questions asked last month by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) about how the Obama Administration has handled the controversy surrounding two studies that showed how to make the H5N1 avian influenza virus transmissible between mammals,” ScienceInsider reports. On March 1, “Sensenbrenner — a former head of the House of Representatives committees on science and the judiciary, and currently vice chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, sent a ‘fact-finding letter’ [.pdf] to Holdren” asking a “number of questions about how the government reviews potential ‘dual-use research of concern’ (DURC) that might be used for good or evil,” the news service writes.
A two-day Royal Society meeting held this week in London — which examined “whether scientific journals should occasionally publish censored versions of papers because the full ones might prove useful to terrorists” — “brought scientists no closer to resolving the question of whether there are any kinds of experiments whose results should be kept from the public,” the Washington Post reports. “The audience of about 200 scientists and ethicists considered numerous questions,” the newspaper writes, noting, “There was general agreement that some experiments are off limits, such as attempting to make the AIDS virus transmissible by air,” but “[t]here was less agreement about the experiments at hand, which changed the characteristics of H5N1 bird flu.”
“[T]he controversy over the research into the genetic modification of the H5N1 flu virus, finally approved for publication, should offer a reminder of the importance of debate” over dual-use technology, a Nature editorial states. “[D]ual-use basic research is a special case because its implications, for good and bad, are often viewed with the greatest clarity by only a small minority of people,” and often only “[t]he scientists involved (and they are increasingly specialists in very small fields) … can fully understand the risks posed by a line of research,” according to the editorial. “There are disadvantages to leaving it up to outsiders to initiate debate about risks, benefits and ethics,” the editorials states, noting three disadvantages, including the risk of misconceptions and a lack of knowledge about how to handle some research.
Following the conclusion of a two-day meeting at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this week — meant “to gather feedback from flu researchers, others in the science community, and the public on its draft framework for funding H5N1 gain-of-function studies and to continue an international dialogue on issues related to benefits and risks of the research” — “experts anticipated that a voluntary moratorium on work with lab-modified strains that have increased transmissibility might end soon,” CIDRAP News reports (Schnirring, 12/18). “That’s because officials at the National Institutes of Health say they will be moving swiftly to finalize a new process for deciding whether or not to fund proposed experiments that could potentially create more dangerous forms of the bird flu virus H5N1,” NPR’s “Shots” blog notes.
CIDRAP News reports on a two-day meeting at the National Institutes of Health during which “researchers, biosecurity experts, and others” discussed the “crafting [of] a framework for funding H5N1 avian influenza gain-of-function studies.” The meeting “is the latest chapter in an intense scientific controversy that was triggered by the publication of two recent studies involving lab-engineered H5N1 strains that showed signs of being transmissible in mammals,” according to the news service. “The global scientific community is closely watching the framework discussions, because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is one of the world’s biggest funders of H5N1 research, including the two studies that sparked the controversy,” CIDRAP writes, adding, “Studies on H5N1 are considered a key pandemic preparedness step, and research findings have been used to help governments guide the development of vaccine and antiviral countermeasures.” According to the news service, “The HHS will post a summary and video of the meeting at a later date for those who weren’t able to attend, and it is encouraging people to submit written comments by Jan 10, 2013” (Schnirring, 12/17).
U.S. Government’s Draft Guidance On Funding For H5N1 Research Receives ‘Mixed Reception,’ Science Reports
“Researchers are giving a mixed reception to a draft U.S. government plan to do more stringent funding reviews of certain kinds of H5N1 avian influenza research — and perhaps even require some studies to be kept secret,” Science reports. “The proposal, presented last week at a meeting of the government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) in Bethesda, Maryland, is the latest fallout from the controversy surrounding two studies in which scientists engineered the H5N1 virus, which normally causes deadly infections in birds, to move between mammals, potentially opening the door to a human pandemic,” the magazine continues. The plan contains “seven criteria that a study would have to meet to be eligible for NIH funding,” the magazine notes and includes reaction from several researchers. According to Science, “NIH says it will soon release for public comment a white paper that details the plan, and officials will present it at an international workshop on H5N1 research that HHS is hosting in Bethesda on 17 and 18 December” (Malakoff, 12/7).
Scientific American Examines Efforts To Increase Influenza Virus Monitoring In Pigs To Prevent Pandemics In Humans
Scientific American examines how, in an attempt to improve early recognition of viruses that could give rise to pandemics in people, such as last yearâ€™s H1N1 swine flu, scientists are looking to better understand “the viruses that infect the estimated 941 million domesticated pigs around the world.” However, as the article notes, “[i]ntensive monitoring of pig viruses is unlikely to come any time soon â€¦ Most pork-producing countries do not test their pigs at all, and in some that doâ€”such as the U.S.â€”the testing is done on behalf of the pork producers, who have little economic incentive to share what they find. The reason: pig farmers know pork prices plummet when pigs and flu are linked in the news.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday recommended that the H1N1 (swine flu) strain be added to next year’s seasonal flu vaccine, “putting an end to separate shots deployed against the pandemic,” Bloomberg reports. The FDA committee voted unanimously to make the H1N1 strain one of the three strains included in the shot, according to the news service. “The panelâ€™s recommendations are routinely adopted and used to guide vaccine manufacturers,” Bloomberg writes (Randall, 2/22).