The debate about two studies showing that, with few genetic mutations, H5N1 bird flu strains could become more easily transmissible among ferrets, a laboratory model for humans, “has become a debate about the role of science in society. Two questions should be addressed here: should this type of research be conducted at all; and if so, should all data generated by this research be published?” Ab Osterhaus, head of the Institute of Virology, at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, writes in a Guardian opinion piece. A team from Erasmus conducted one of the two studies, he notes.
Pneumonia & Flu
Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director-general for health security and environment, “is hoping bird flu studies currently in publishing limbo will be released by the time the agency hosts a second meeting on the controversy this summer,” the Canadian Press/Winnipeg Free Press reports. “A major break in the impasse would be needed for that to happen,” the Canadian Press writes, adding, “As things currently stand, revised versions of the two studies are due to be presented late this month to the U.S. biosecurity panel that earlier recommended against their full publication.”
Rep. Sensenbrenner Sends ‘Fact-Finding Letter’ To White House Science Adviser About Bird Flu Studies
“Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a former head of the House committees on science and the judiciary, and currently vice chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, last week sent a ‘fact-finding letter’ to White House science adviser John Holdren, asking pointed questions about how the U.S. government has handled the controversy” surrounding two studies that showed how H5N1 bird flu virus could be manipulated to become transmissible among ferrets, a model for humans, “and questioning whether it should have funded the two flu studies,” ScienceInsider reports. “The [Obama] Administration’s response has appeared ad hoc, delayed, and inadequate,” Sensenbrenner writes, adding, “An ad hoc approach is inadequate to balance the priorities of public health and the free flow of academic ideas,” according to the article, which includes the full text of the letter.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) is scheduled this week to hold “a closed-door meeting to once again look at unpublished manuscripts describing” two studies that showed how H5N1 bird flu virus could be manipulated to become transmissible among ferrets, a model for humans, NPR’s health blog “Shots” reports, noting that the meeting “will include a classified briefing from the intelligence community.” The article examines the “dual use” nature of the studies, meaning “legitimate scientific work that’s intended to advance science or medicine, but that also might be misused with the intent to do harm.” Though the “concept of dual use got a lot of attention even before this bird flu controversy,” scientists, institutions and funding agencies do not always have policies in place to review the potential consequences of research, the blog notes (Greenfieldboyce, 3/26).
“The U.S. government [on Thursday] released a new policy [.pdf] that will require federal agencies to systematically review the potential risks associated with federally funded studies involving 15 ‘high consequence’ pathogens and toxins, including the H5N1 avian influenza virus,” Science Insider reports. “The reviews are designed to reduce the risks associated with ‘dual use research of concern’ (DURC) that could be used for good or evil,” the news service writes (Malakoff, 3/29).
U.S. Panel May Re-Evaluate Bird Flu Research After Scientists Present New Data About Risks To Humans
Speaking at the American Society for Microbiology’s (ASM) Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research meeting in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Ron Fouchier, the leader of the team at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands that genetically altered the bird flu virus, making it transmissible between ferrets and “touching off public fears of a pandemic, said … that the virus he created was neither as contagious nor as dangerous as people had been led to believe …, prompt[ing] the United States government to ask that the experiments be re-evaluated by a government advisory panel that recommended in December that certain details of the work be kept secret and not published,” the New York Times reports (Grady, 2/29).
“Pakistan is set to become the first country in south Asia to introduce the pneumococcal vaccine to protect children against pneumonia, one of the biggest killers of children under five in the developing world,” the Guardian reports, noting, “The program is due to be announced by the country’s prime minister, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, on Tuesday, signaling clear political commitment from the Pakistani government in rolling out the vaccine.” The country’s expanded program on immunization (EPI) is introducing the vaccine in conjunction with the GAVI Alliance, UNICEF, and WHO, the newspaper adds. “In Pakistan, more than 423,000 children die before reaching their fifth birthday, and almost one in five of these deaths is due to pneumonia,” according to the Guardian, which notes, “The new pneumococcal vaccine is expected to prevent a significant proportion of pneumonia cases, and has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives” (Tran, 10/9).
Though the number of children dying of preventable and treatable diseases worldwide has dropped significantly since 1990, there is “realistic hope for much more” progress, particularly if “[i]mproved hygiene and sanitation … play a key role in the next stage,” Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, write in the Huffington Post’s “Global Motherhood” blog. Noting that “diarrhea and pneumonia are the two leading killers of children, accounting for almost 30 percent of under-five deaths globally,” they state, “Vaccines can help, but improved hygiene and sanitation are also vital, and therefore key to meeting the Millennium Development Goal of cutting the child mortality rate by at least two-thirds by 2015.”
“A new strain of a potentially deadly virus related to SARS, which has killed one man in Saudi Arabia and left a Qatari man critically ill in London, does not appear to spread easily from person to person, the World Health Organization says,” according to the New York Times (Santora, 9/29). “To ensure an appropriate and effective identification and investigation of patients who may be infected with the virus, without overburdening health care systems with unnecessary testing, WHO issued a revised interim case definition Saturday on its website,” Xinhua reports (9/30). “On Saturday, the health organization, which was rushing to develop a diagnostic test, said that doctors should test for the virus only if the patient is severely ill,” the New York Times states (9/29). “But [the agency] added anyone who has been in direct contact with a confirmed case and who has any fever or respiratory symptoms should also be tested,” Reuters notes (Kelland, 9/29).
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).