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).
National Security and Bioterrorism
The U.S. journal Science on Thursday published the results of a controversial study in which researchers at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands “identified five mutations apparently necessary to make the [H5N1] bird flu virus spread easily among ferrets, which catch the same flus that humans do,” the New York Times reports (McNeil, 6/21). “The publication of [the] research had been delayed by several months after the U.S. government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) warned that the information should be censored to avoid being misused, for example by terrorists,” the Guardian writes, noting, “Last month, Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published details of another form of the bird flu virus that can pass between people, which was created by merging a mutated strain with the swine flu virus that sparked a human pandemic in 2009” (Jha, 6/21).
“It’s easy to get the impression that [recent controversy over research into mutated versions of the H5N1 flu virus] has created a clear split between a scientific community that wants the research to proceed and the results to be published and a biosecurity community that doesn’t,” biological-weapons expert Tim Trevan writes in this Nature opinion piece. But “[a]s a member of this biosecurity community for more than 30 years — I was special adviser to the chairman of the United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq and covered chemical and biological disarmament with the U.K. Foreign Office in both London and Geneva, Switzerland — I believe this to be a false dichotomy,” he states.
U.S. Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan on Thursday “hosted a roundtable discussion with World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan and senior officials from across the U.S. Government,” during which “[p]articipants discussed the steps needed to advance key elements of a U.S. Government-WHO memorandum of understanding on global health security, signed last year on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly,” the White House Blog reports. The “meeting reflects our deepening commitment to build relationships across sectors and with other nations in recognition that the response to health threats must be global,” the blog writes, adding, “The Obama Administration sees yesterday’s meeting as an important step towards protecting the health of the American people as well as people around the world against potential public health emergencies” (6/15).
“A Pakistani militant group threatened action on Saturday against anyone conducting polio vaccinations in the region where it is based, saying the health care drive was a cover for U.S. spies,” Reuters reports, adding, “The group, based in North Waziristan and led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, said it had banned vaccinations for as long as U.S. drone aircraft continued to make missile strikes in Pakistan” (Mujtaba, 6/16). “The statement by Hafiz Gul Bahadur is an obstacle to efforts to beat polio in Pakistan, one of only three nations where the virus is endemic,” the Associated Press writes (6/17).
“Two new task forces being [established] by U.S. Africa Command [Africom] have set their sights on one of the biggest killers on the continent: the mosquito,” the American Forces Press Service reports in an article on the U.S. Department of Defense webpage. “Ninety percent of the world’s malaria-related deaths are reported in Africa, and the disease kills some 600,000 African children each year,” the news service notes, adding, “Africom incorporates malaria prevention into much of its theater engagement, distributing mosquito nets and teaching new diagnostic techniques during training events throughout Africa.”
“Investment in global health programs protects our national security, promotes economic growth, and upholds humanitarian values,” Jenny Eaton Dyer, executive director of Hope Through Healing Hands and a member of the Tennessee State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, writes in this opinion piece in the Tennessean, adding, “The…
“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.
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 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).