“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).
Pneumonia & Flu
In this post in PSI’s “Healthy Lives” blog, “PSI’s Nutrition Research Adviser Dr. Abel Irena talks with Saul Morris, senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, about progress that has been made in child health.” Morris addresses treatment for pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria among children, delivery and access to integrated health systems, the Gates Foundation’s focus on newborn health, and the most effective steps to take to reach the fourth Millennium Development Goal to reduce child mortality by 2015 (5/24).
“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.
“Medical researchers in the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) have been empowered to set their own research priorities through a funding mechanism backed by a French oil company, according to scientists speaking at the second European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), in South Africa this month,” SciDev.Net reports. “In 2011, the Congolese Foundation for Medical Research signed an agreement with TOTAL, stipulating that the energy giant would fund specific research activities and pay salaries,” which “enabled the foundation to set its own research priorities — a break with the usual funding constraints whereby researchers’ priorities are dictated by foreign funding agencies,” the news service writes.
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.
“The controversy over research about potentially dangerous H5N1 viruses heated up [Thursday night] in a New York City debate that featured some of the leading voices exchanging blunt comments on the alleged risks and benefits of publishing or withholding the full details of the studies,” CIDRAP News reports. “The debate, sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, involved two members of the biosecurity advisory board that called for ‘redacting’ the two studies in question to delete details, along with scientists who want the full studies published and representatives of Science and Nature, the two journals involved,” the news service adds (Roos, 2/3).
U.N., Partners Call For Greater Efforts To Fight Number One Killer Of Children On World Pneumonia Day
On World Pneumonia Day (WPD), recognized on November 12, “[t]he United Nations and its partners … called for greater efforts to eradicate pneumonia, the number one killer of children under the age of five,” the U.N. News Centre reports. According to the WHO, “pneumonia, which is a form of acute respiratory infection that affects the lungs, kills an estimated 1.2 million children under the age of five years every year — more than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined,” the news service notes (11/12). In a statement recognizing WPD, USAID said, “Thankfully, we have in our possession the tools needed to change the tide on these statistics. Now we need new ways to deliver badly needed health services and new ways to stimulate demand in the most rural pockets of the world” (11/12). “The Global Coalition Against Child Pneumonia, a partnership of more than 140 government, international and philanthropic organizations, sponsors WPD,” IIP Digital adds (Porter, 11/9).
“A new virus from the same family as SARS which sparked a global alert in September has now killed two people in Saudi Arabia, and total cases there and in Qatar have reached six, the World Health Organization said” on Friday, Reuters reports (Kelland, 11/23). “Of the six known cases … two have been fatal” and “[o]nly two were clearly connected,” as they were members of the same family, according to the New York Times (McNeil, 11/23). In 2003, nearly 8,500 people worldwide were infected by SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, and about 900 of those people died, the Associated Press/CBS News reports. “The WHO said it was continuing to work with the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other international health partners to gain a better understanding of the [current] virus,” the news service notes (11/23).
“An experimental vaccine based on a molecule related to DNA protects animals against influenza and may one day offer an ultra-rapid way to develop new shots for humans, German scientists reported on Sunday,” Reuters reports (Hirschler, 11/25). “In a first for any infectious disease, a vaccine against flu has been made out of messenger RNA (mRNA) — the genetic material that controls the production of proteins,” New Scientist writes, adding, “Unlike its predecessors, the new vaccine may work for life, and it may be possible to manufacture it quickly enough to stop a pandemic” (Mackenzie, 11/25).
“A global study mapping human diseases that come from animals like tuberculosis, AIDS, bird flu or Rift Valley fever has found that just 13 such diseases are responsible for 2.4 billion cases of human illness and 2.2 million deaths a year,” Reuters reports (Kelland, 7/5). “The report, which was conducted by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the Institute of Zoology (U.K.) and the Hanoi School of Public Health in Vietnam, maps poverty, livestock-keeping and the diseases humans get from animals, and presents a ‘top 20’ list of geographical hotspots,” an ILRI press release states (7/5). The study “found that Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Tanzania, as well as India have the highest zoonotic disease burdens, with widespread illness and death,” Reuters writes.