The WHO is expected to hold a meeting in February to discuss controversy over recent research on the H5N1 bird flu virus, after the U.S. National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) in December advised the journals Science and Nature to withhold publishing two teams’ research on the virus for fear the information could “fall into the wrong hands,” a commentary in the Economist’s “Babbage” blog states. “In a statement sent to Science, the WHO says that research” into bird flu genetics is “an important tool for global surveillance efforts,” the commentary says.
National Security and Bioterrorism
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).
“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.
“In recent months, many politicians and presidential hopefuls have called for budget reductions, and many have specifically targeted military spending for cutbacks,” Peter Hotez and James Kazura, past president and president, respectively, of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, write in this Atlantic opinion piece. “[P]rograms such as the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) often find themselves low on the priority list despite their crucial role in saving the lives of our troops on the battlefield and here at home,” they write, adding, “Today, American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan still face formidable tropical disease threats. … For over 100 years, WRAIR has been the U.S. military’s premier institution for preventing these types of tropical infections.”
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 World Health Organization says it will take a role in helping sort through an international scientific controversy over two bird flu studies that the U.S. government deemed too dangerous to publish in full,” the Canadian Press/Winnipeg Free Press reports. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general for health security and environment, on Sunday in an interview with the Canadian Press “said the agency will pull together international talks aimed at fleshing out the issues that need to be addressed and then work to resolve them.” On the advice of the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity (NSABB), the journals Science and Nature “have grudgingly agreed to abbreviate the papers, leaving out the details of how the work was done,” according to the news service.
NIH Official Discusses Reaction To Bird Flu Studies, Development Of Publishing Mechanism In Nature Interview
Nature interviews Amy Patterson, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Science Policy, which administers the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), about the board’s decision in December to advise against full publication of “two papers on avian flu (H5N1) [that] could pose a biosecurity risk if published in their entirety.” Patterson discusses the efforts of the board and the “international flu community” to “develop a mechanism by which important details from the papers could be withheld from the general public while remaining accessible to public health officials and researchers studying the virus,” Nature writes (Ledford, 1/11).
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).
In this Reuters opinion piece, New York-based writer Peter Christian Hall responds to “the U.S. government’s move to restrict publication of vital research into H5N1 avian flu,” writing, “This unprecedented interference in the field of biology could hinder research and hamper responsiveness in distant lands plagued by H5N1,” yet “no one seems to be challenging a key assumption — that H5N1 could make a useful weapon. It wouldn’t.”
Author Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in this Foreign Policy opinion piece that the announcement that researchers from Norway and the U.S. have developed a supercontagious variety of bird flu “has highlighted a dilemma: How do you balance the universal mandate for scientific openness against the fear that terrorists or rogue states might follow the researchers’ work — using it as catastrophic cookbooks for global influenza contagion?” She continues, “Along with several older studies that are now garnering fresh attention, [the research] has revealed that the political world is completely unprepared for the synthetic-biology revolution” and notes “there are no consistent, internationally agreed-upon regulations governing synthetic biology, the extraordinarily popular and fruitful 21st-century field of genetic manipulation of microorganisms.”