“In the sobering annals of disaster prevention, genetic manipulation of the H5N1 influenza virus is looming as a seminal case,” John Steinbruner, director of the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Maryland, writes in an opinion piece in The Hill’s “Congress Blog,” noting that two “laboratory experiments have rendered the highly virulent avian strain transmissible among ferrets, strongly suggesting that it would be transmissible among humans as well.” He states, “If the virus could achieve efficient transmissibility while retaining anything like its current case fatality rate [of 50 percent], it could inflict global disaster of unprecedented proportions.” The actions of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, initially recommending publication of redacted versions of the two studies then reversing that decision, “implicitly concedes that the U.S. alone cannot exercise comprehensive jurisdiction,” Steinbruner writes.
National Security and Bioterrorism
In a letter (.pdf) dated April 25, Amy Patterson, associate director for science policy in the office of the director of the National Institutes of Health, “has refuted criticism of the way a meeting held to allow a biosecurity advisory group to review controversial bird flu studies was handled,” denying “the agenda was crafted to achieve a predetermined outcome,” the Canadian Press/Winnipeg Free Press writes. Patterson was “responding to a harsh critique of the meeting from Michael Osterholm, a member of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity [NSABB],” who, in a letter (.doc) to Patterson dated April 12, criticized “the agenda and speakers list” of the March 29-30 meeting, the news service writes (Branswell, 5/4).
“In a long-awaited study that helped prompt a contentious debate over the wisdom of conducting research that has the potential to help as well as harm, scientists reported Wednesday that they had engineered a mutant strain of [H5N1] bird flu that can spread easily between ferrets — a laboratory animal that responds to flu viruses much as people do,” the Los Angeles Times (Brown, 5/3). Published in the journal Nature, the study is “the first of two controversial papers about laboratory-enhanced versions of the deadly bird flu virus that initially sparked fears among U.S. biosecurity experts that it could be used as a recipe for a bioterrorism weapon,” Reuters writes (Steenhuysen, 5/2). The U.S. National Security Advisory Board on Biosecurity “had asked journals to hold off publishing” the studies, but “[t]he panel later dropped its objections after it became clear the engineered viruses were less virulent than had been feared,” according to the Washington Post (Brown, 5/2).
“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 notion that diseases or contamination somehow recognize geographic or political borders is a dangerous illusion. … Fortunately, the United States has a broad, diverse, and world-class range of experience and expertise in dealing with all manner of global health issues,” Nils Daulaire, director of the Office of Global Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), writes in a perspective piece in the Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Citing some examples of the government’s work in global health, he continues, “With such a wide array of professionals and departments within HHS working on global efforts to prevent disease, promote health, and strengthen partnerships, we needed to find a way to pull together our work and bring it into a coherent whole.” Therefore, “the Office of Global Affairs recently unveiled the HHS Global Health Strategy (GHS) at the beginning of 2012,” he notes.
Devex News Analysis Examines Democratic, Republican Party Platforms On Foreign Policy, Including Global Health
A Devex news analysis examines the Democratic and Republican platform positions on foreign policy following the party conventions, writing, “Even as pocketbook concerns continue to overshadow foreign policy issues on the campaign trail, in both Charlotte and Tampa, top-billed speakers made the case for the U.S. foreign aid program.” The article examines the core principles of each platform, notes that neither platform offers specifics on foreign aid spending, and discusses the platforms’ stances on certain foreign policy issues, including global health, food security, climate change, and gay rights.
In a Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security on Friday, President Barack Obama “announced a plan to accelerate investments in developing world agriculture to meet rising food demands and improve nutrition, calling the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition a moral, economic and security imperative,” IIP Digital reports (Porter, 5/18). The new program, unveiled “in conjunction with African leaders from Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania, will parlay more than $3 billion in private assistance into a public-private partnership with an ambitious goal: lifting 50 million people from poverty over 10 years,” according to USA Today’s “The Oval” (Wolf, 5/18). The initiative “will constitute the next phase of a groundbreaking program begun during the 2009 G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy,” Inter Press Service writes (Brion, 5/18). More than 45 companies have pledged to invest in the initiative, Devex notes (Ravelo, 5/10). A fact sheet on the New Alliance is available on the White House website (5/18).
In this Scientific American opinion piece, author and former staff writer at Scientific American John Horgan examines “a bitter debate” among scientists over the publication of controversial H5N1 research, writing, “Research involving the bird-flu virus H5N1 poses an especially knotty dilemma, in which scientists’ commitment to openness — and to reducing humanity’s vulnerability to potential health threats — collides with broader security concerns.” Horgan provides some statistics on H5N1 infection, recounts a brief history of the research in question and suggests four options to resolve the dilemma.
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).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday released a 268-page annual report that “profiles a wide range of CDC influenza-related projects around the world, from flu surveillance in Indonesia to vaccine effectiveness studies in El Salvador and epidemiology training in Ghana,” CIDRAP News reports. The report also “describes the CDC’s collaborations with the World Health Organization (WHO), outlines projects it supports in about 40 countries, … describes specific studies undertaken in many of those countries,” “lists international training conferences it has sponsored, and describes the CDC program for sharing diagnostic test kits and reagents,” the news service writes. “Over the past six years the [international] program has undergone remarkable growth and has expanded to provide support to over 40 countries, all WHO regional offices and WHO headquarters,” the report notes, according to CIDRAP. “The report, covering 2011, is the third annual account of the agency’s global flu activities, which have expanded greatly in the past decade,” the news service adds (Roos, 10/30).