Researchers of H5N1 bird flu virus “are set to wrap up a two-day meeting on the issue Friday with international experts at the World Health Organization in Geneva” with the aim of settling controversy over the work of two research teams that created genetically altered viral strains that are easily transmissible among ferrets, a laboratory model for humans, the Associated Press reports (Mason, 2/17). “The meeting may reach some consensus on a few immediate issues, such as what parts of the studies should be published, and who might qualify for access to the full papers on a ‘need-to-know’ basis,” according to the Nature News Blog (Butler, 2/16).
National Security and Bioterrorism
Indian Authorities Vaccinate Children Crossing India-Pakistan Border; Distrust Of Polio Vaccines Grows In Pakistan
After going a year without recording a polio case, Indian health officials have begun vaccinating young children who cross the border to or from Pakistan at the Munabao railway station in Rajasthan state, BBC News reports. “The drive was launched after more than 175 cases of polio were reported in Pakistan, officials said,” the news agency writes (2/16).
Reuters reports on security measures taken at laboratories working with deadly bacteria and viruses, examining current regulations around lab safety and detailing precautions taken at various labs around the globe. “Labs whose experiments on dangerous pathogens are funded by the U.S. government must follow specific rules to keep the microbes from escaping, but those rules are not enforceable for researchers working with private funds,” the news service writes, adding, “Outside the country, security and safety requirements vary widely, experts say.”
Bird flu experts are scheduled to begin a two-day meeting at the WHO in Geneva on Thursday “to try to settle an unprecedented row over a call to [censor] publication of two scientific studies which detail how to mutate H5N1 bird flu viruses into a form that could cause a deadly human pandemic,” Reuters reports in an article describing the debate in detail. “But experts say whatever the outcome, no amount of censorship, global regulation or shutting down of research projects could stop rogue scientists getting the tools to create and release a pandemic H5N1 virus if they were intent on evil,” the news service adds.
NPR’s health blog “Shots” previews an upcoming WHO-convened meeting to discuss the recent news that two research teams have created H5N1 bird flu strains that are easily transmissible among ferrets, which are used as lab models for humans. Fears that terrorists possibly could use the information prompted the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity in December to request the scientists redact some information prior to publishing their study results and investigators in January to institute a 60-day moratorium on bird flu research, the blog notes.
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 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 December 2011, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) advised that two research teams that had genetically altered the H5N1 virus to be easily transmissible among ferrets redact some of the research details before publishing in the journals Science and Nature. The board’s primary concern was that the altered virus could possibly be used as a bioweapon. Scientists in January voluntarily suspended bird flu research for 60 days, and the WHO is expected to hold a summit later this month to discuss the issue. The following are summaries of two opinion pieces on the topic.
“Details of a genetically altered strain of the deadly avian flu virus are ‘a grave concern’ to public safety and should be kept under wraps,” the 23-member National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity declared Tuesday “[i]n a letter released by the journals Science (.pdf) and Nature,” CNN reports (1/31). “The board explains that its main concern was that publishing the experiments in detail could help someone to develop viruses for harmful purposes,” BBC News writes, adding, “But it acknowledges the work holds ‘clear benefits’ in alerting humanity to the potential H5N1 threat, and that it could lead to greater preparation and potential development of novel strategies for disease control” (Walsh, 1/31).
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).