The debate about two studies showing that, with few genetic mutations, H5N1 bird flu strains could become more easily transmissible among ferrets, a laboratory model for humans, “has become a debate about the role of science in society. Two questions should be addressed here: should this type of research be conducted at all; and if so, should all data generated by this research be published?” Ab Osterhaus, head of the Institute of Virology, at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, writes in a Guardian opinion piece. A team from Erasmus conducted one of the two studies, he notes.
Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director-general for health security and environment, “is hoping bird flu studies currently in publishing limbo will be released by the time the agency hosts a second meeting on the controversy this summer,” the Canadian Press/Winnipeg Free Press reports. “A major break in the impasse would be needed for that to happen,” the Canadian Press writes, adding, “As things currently stand, revised versions of the two studies are due to be presented late this month to the U.S. biosecurity panel that earlier recommended against their full publication.”
Rep. Sensenbrenner Sends ‘Fact-Finding Letter’ To White House Science Adviser About Bird Flu Studies
“Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a former head of the House committees on science and the judiciary, and currently vice chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, last week sent a ‘fact-finding letter’ to White House science adviser John Holdren, asking pointed questions about how the U.S. government has handled the controversy” surrounding two studies that showed how H5N1 bird flu virus could be manipulated to become transmissible among ferrets, a model for humans, “and questioning whether it should have funded the two flu studies,” ScienceInsider reports. “The [Obama] Administration’s response has appeared ad hoc, delayed, and inadequate,” Sensenbrenner writes, adding, “An ad hoc approach is inadequate to balance the priorities of public health and the free flow of academic ideas,” according to the article, which includes the full text of the letter.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) is scheduled this week to hold “a closed-door meeting to once again look at unpublished manuscripts describing” two studies that showed how H5N1 bird flu virus could be manipulated to become transmissible among ferrets, a model for humans, NPR’s health blog “Shots” reports, noting that the meeting “will include a classified briefing from the intelligence community.” The article examines the “dual use” nature of the studies, meaning “legitimate scientific work that’s intended to advance science or medicine, but that also might be misused with the intent to do harm.” Though the “concept of dual use got a lot of attention even before this bird flu controversy,” scientists, institutions and funding agencies do not always have policies in place to review the potential consequences of research, the blog notes (Greenfieldboyce, 3/26).
“The U.S. government [on Thursday] released a new policy [.pdf] that will require federal agencies to systematically review the potential risks associated with federally funded studies involving 15 ‘high consequence’ pathogens and toxins, including the H5N1 avian influenza virus,” Science Insider reports. “The reviews are designed to reduce the risks associated with ‘dual use research of concern’ (DURC) that could be used for good or evil,” the news service writes (Malakoff, 3/29).
U.S. Panel May Re-Evaluate Bird Flu Research After Scientists Present New Data About Risks To Humans
Speaking at the American Society for Microbiology’s (ASM) Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research meeting in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Ron Fouchier, the leader of the team at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands that genetically altered the bird flu virus, making it transmissible between ferrets and “touching off public fears of a pandemic, said … that the virus he created was neither as contagious nor as dangerous as people had been led to believe …, prompt[ing] the United States government to ask that the experiments be re-evaluated by a government advisory panel that recommended in December that certain details of the work be kept secret and not published,” the New York Times reports (Grady, 2/29).
“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).
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.”