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.
“The World Health Organization issued a stern warning on Friday to scientists who have engineered a highly pathogenic form of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, saying their work carries significant risks and must be tightly controlled,” Reuters reports (Kelland, 12/30). The agency “warned … that while such studies were important, they could have deadly consequences,” the New York Times writes (McNeil/Grady, 1/2).
The PBS NewsHour blog “The Rundown” features excerpts from interviews with three experts discussing the recent debate over research conducted on the H5N1 bird flu virus. “What began as a question on whether scientific journals should publish the complete research has grown into an argument on whether to conduct these studies, and others like them, at all,” according to the blog, which features quotes from Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers; Vincent Racaniello, a microbiologist at Columbia; and Carl Zimmer, a science journalist and author (Pelcyger, 1/30).
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).
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 is recommending the H1N1 (swine flu) virus be added to the regular flu vaccine for the Northern Hemisphere’s 2010-2011 regular flu season, the Associated Press reports (2/18).
The New York Times examines the WHO’s role as “clearinghouse” for getting H1N1 (swine flu) vaccines to lower income nations. Though H1N1 has died down in North America and many wealthier nations “are trying to get rid of their [vaccine] surpluses,” the virus continues to circulate in regions of North Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, according to the newspaper.
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).
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.”