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Scientists Halt Bird Flu Research For 60 Days Amid Safety Concerns

The head of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which funded “two projects that created a highly pathogenic [H5N1] flu virus mutation, has welcomed a two-month moratorium on further research while defending the value and safety of the experiments,” the Financial Times reports. NIAID Director Anthony Fauci “told the FT it was ‘right to get off the unnecessary fast track’ of a debate ‘played out in sound bites,’ and instead hold a serious international debate to determine future publication and practice in the field,” according to the newspaper (Jack, 1/22). “In a letter published in the journals Nature and Science on Friday, 39 scientists defended the research as crucial to public health efforts, including surveillance programs to detect when the H5N1 influenza virus might mutate and spark a pandemic,” Reuters writes, adding, “But they are bowing to fear that has become widespread since media reports discussed the studies in December that the engineered viruses ‘may escape from the laboratories’ … or possibly be used to create a bioterror weapon” (Begley, 1/20).

Settling Controversy Surrounding Bird Flu Research Will Not Be Easy

The WHO is expected to hold a meeting in February to discuss controversy over recent research on the H5N1 bird flu virus, after the U.S. National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) in December advised the journals Science and Nature to withhold publishing two teams’ research on the virus for fear the information could “fall into the wrong hands,” a commentary in the Economist’s “Babbage” blog states. “In a statement sent to Science, the WHO says that research” into bird flu genetics is “an important tool for global surveillance efforts,” the commentary says.

Risks Of Modifying Flu Strains To Become Highly Transmissible In Humans Outweigh Benefits

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.”

Panel Discussion Shows Heated Controversy Over H5N1 Research

“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).

Examining Debate Over Bird Flu Research

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).

Bird Flu Controversy An Opportunity To Set A Higher Tone For Public Debate

In this Huffington Post opinion piece, Leslie Gerwin, associate director of law and public affairs at Princeton University, reflects on the recent controversy over whether to research and publish data about potentially dangerous strains of the H5N1 bird flu virus, writing, “I am disturbed that so much coverage of this dispute — so deserving of sober consideration — is fixated on fear mongering.” She notes, “Those opposing research or publication … predict that publishing results will lead to abuse or misuse by terrorists looking to create a biological weapon. … Those favoring continuation of the project warn of ‘censorship,’ a constitutional no-no particularly when involving the ‘suppression’ of science.”

Reuters Examines Upcoming WHO Meeting To Discuss Debate Over Bird Flu Research

Bird flu experts are scheduled to begin a two-day meeting at the WHO in Geneva on Thursday “to try to settle an unprecedented row over a call to [censor] publication of two scientific studies which detail how to mutate H5N1 bird flu viruses into a form that could cause a deadly human pandemic,” Reuters reports in an article describing the debate in detail. “But experts say whatever the outcome, no amount of censorship, global regulation or shutting down of research projects could stop rogue scientists getting the tools to create and release a pandemic H5N1 virus if they were intent on evil,” the news service adds.

Opinion Pieces Discuss Bird Flu Research Controversy

In December 2011, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) advised that two research teams that had genetically altered the H5N1 virus to be easily transmissible among ferrets redact some of the research details before publishing in the journals Science and Nature. The board’s primary concern was that the altered virus could possibly be used as a bioweapon. Scientists in January voluntarily suspended bird flu research for 60 days, and the WHO is expected to hold a summit later this month to discuss the issue. The following are summaries of two opinion pieces on the topic.

Mexico Sees Spike In Swine Flu After Two Years Of Low Transmission

“There have been 1,623 cases of all strains of flu in Mexico recorded so far for January, 90 percent of them H1N1 [swine flu],” compared to “about 1,000 flu cases in Mexico during all of last year,” of which roughly 250 cases were swine flu, Health Secretary Salomon Chertorivski Woldenberg told reporters on Tuesday, the Associated Press reports. The news service notes, “Despite the spike, the number of cases is well within a normal flu season for Mexico, which can see from 5,000 to 11,000 incidents of all strains,” Woldenberg said. “The low appearance of the H1N1 virus the past two years is one reason it’s drawing so much media attention in Mexico,” the AP writes, adding, “Public nervousness about H1N1 has been high since the first outbreak in spring 2009, when the virus initially appeared to have a high mortality rate and Mexican authorities closed restaurants, schools, museums, libraries, and theaters to stop its spread” (2/1).

WHO Meeting Decides To Extend Moratorium On Bird Flu Research, Delay Full Publication Of Two Studies Detailing Lab-Modified Strains

A group of 22 public health and influenza experts reached a consensus on Friday at a WHO-convened meeting regarding the work of two research teams that created genetically altered strains of the H5N1 bird flu virus that are easily transmissible among ferrets, a laboratory model for humans, a WHO press release reports (2/17). “In December, the [U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity] asked two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science, to withhold details of the research for fear it could be used by bioterrorists,” Reuters writes, adding that on January 20, flu researchers also imposed a 60-day moratorium on continuing research using highly pathogenic strains (Nebehay/Kelland, 2/17). At the meeting, the group agreed to “extending the temporary moratorium on research with new laboratory-modified H5N1 viruses and recogni[zed] that research on naturally occurring H5N1 influenza virus must continue in order to protect public health,” the press release states, adding that they “also came to a consensus that delayed publication of the entire manuscripts would have more public health benefit than urgently partially publishing” (2/17).