“[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.
“This week, a Senate panel is investigating biological security in the wake of” controversial “potentially dangerous research” on H5N1 avian influenza, “with good reason,” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) writes in a Washington Times opinion piece. He says “the U.S. government should not have been caught by surprise” by the two research papers describing how genetic mutations to the virus could make it transmissible between ferrets, because the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) “was created in 2004 and charged with the specific responsibility of reviewing this type of research and offering guidance to all federal agencies that conduct biological research.” Sensenbrenner says the NSABB’s initial recommendation against publishing the studies and its subsequent reversal of that decision has left him with “suspicions that the U.S. government is woefully unprepared for dealing with dual use research of concern — research that, while conducted for a legitimate scientific purpose, could be dangerous if misused.”
Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center, “[t]he Dutch scientist at the center of the controversy over recent bird flu experiments, says that his team applied for government permission today to submit a paper describing their research to a science journal,” NPR’s health blog “Shots” reports, adding, “The Dutch government has asserted that the studies, which describe how to make bird flu virus more contagious, fall under regulations that control the export of weapons technology.” According to the news service, “He feels the government’s actions amount to censorship and has previously has said he did not want to apply for an export permit, because it would set a precedent” (Greenfieldboyce, 4/24). “Fouchier says that by conceding to the government’s request while continuing to contest the need for an export permit, he hopes to have found an acceptable compromise,” Nature writes.
The U.S. government on Friday formally accepted a recommendation from the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) “to publish two controversial studies of the H5N1 avian influenza virus, moving the pair of papers another step closer to publication,” ScienceInsider reports (Malakoff, 4/20). “Groups led by the two scientists — Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin and Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam — engineered the H5N1 virus to be more transmissible between ferrets, mammals whose response to the flu is most like humans,” Bloomberg Businessweek notes. “The research is critical to understanding and detecting bird flu strains, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said [on Friday] in a statement,” Bloomberg writes, noting that the NSABB “recommended in March that Sebelius and Collins approve publication” (Wayne, 4/20).
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) on Friday recommended that revised versions of two controversial studies on H5N1 avian flu be published in scientific journals, reversing its previous recommendation that the studies only be published if certain details were withheld, the New York Times reports. The studies are the work of two research teams that created genetically altered viral strains that were airborne and therefore easily transmissible, the newspaper notes (Grady, 3/30). “In a statement [.pdf] released [Friday], the NSABB said it unanimously recommended that the revised manuscript by the University of Wisconsin group, headed by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, DVM, PhD, be published in full, and members voted 12 to six that the data, methods, and conclusions in the revised paper by the Erasmus group, headed by Ron Fouchier, PhD, be published,” CIDRAP News writes (Schnirring, 3/30).
NSABB Calls For Global Guidelines For Conducting, Communicating Research Involving Dangerous Pathogens
NewScientist reports on the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity’s (NSABB) recommendation that revised versions of two controversial studies on H5N1 avian flu be published in scientific journals, reversing its previous recommendation that the studies only be published if certain details were withheld. According to the news service, dissent among the board members over the issue has prompted the committee to “propos[e] talks to draft global guidelines for doing and communicating work involving dangerous pathogens.”
Discussion Of NSABB Recommendation To Publish Controversial Bird Flu Studies To Continue In London Meeting
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity’s (NSABB) “reversal on publishing two controversial H5N1 studies is poised to shift discussions on the topic that continue in London this week, as more participants in the debate weigh in following the March 30 announcement,” CIDRAP News reports (Schnirring, 4/2). But Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University, who is the acting chair of the panel, stressed on Monday that the “recommendation that two controversial papers on bird flu be published in full is not a reversal of the stand it took last year out of concerns over terrorism,” Reuters writes. “‘We had new information, confidential information, about benefits of this research, and we also had confidential information about the risks involved,'” Keim said, according to the news service (Kelland/Begley, 4/2).
Number Of Fatalities From 2009 Swine Flu Pandemic Might Have Been 15 Times Higher Than Reported Deaths, Study Says
In a study published on Monday in the Lancet Infectious Diseases, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic likely killed about 284,500 people worldwide between August 2009 and August 2010, a number 15 times higher than the 18,500 deaths reported to the WHO, Bloomberg News reports. “More than half the deaths may have been in southeast Asia and Africa, compared with 12 percent of officially reported fatalities, the authors wrote,” the news agency states (Bennett, 6/25). The reported cases “were only the deaths confirmed by lab testing, which the WHO itself warned was a gross underestimate because the deaths of people without access to the health system go uncounted, and because the virus is not always detectable after a victim dies,” Reuters writes (Begley, 6/25).
The New York Times examines several studies published in the journals Nature and Science looking at how the H5N1 bird flu virus could mutate to become more virulent among humans and outlines the history of controversy surrounding the studies. “While scientists have offered two possible ways in which H5N1 might become a human flu, they’re almost certainly not the only two,” the newspaper writes, adding, “There is no checklist of mutations that any bird flu must acquire to start infecting humans.” According to the newspaper, “Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, hopes scientists will be able to amass a longer list of potential mutations, and even find a common denominator in how they alter H5N1,” which might make it “possible to monitor emerging strains for signs that they are about to cross over into humans” (Zimmer, 6/25).
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.”