In this Huffington Post opinion piece, Leslie Gerwin, associate director of law and public affairs at Princeton University, reflects on the recent controversy over whether to research and publish data about potentially dangerous strains of the H5N1 bird flu virus, writing, “I am disturbed that so much coverage of this dispute — so deserving of sober consideration — is fixated on fear mongering.” She notes, “Those opposing research or publication … predict that publishing results will lead to abuse or misuse by terrorists looking to create a biological weapon. … Those favoring continuation of the project warn of ‘censorship,’ a constitutional no-no particularly when involving the ‘suppression’ of science.”
Pneumonia & Flu
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.
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.
“There have been 1,623 cases of all strains of flu in Mexico recorded so far for January, 90 percent of them H1N1 [swine flu],” compared to “about 1,000 flu cases in Mexico during all of last year,” of which roughly 250 cases were swine flu, Health Secretary Salomon Chertorivski Woldenberg told reporters on Tuesday, the Associated Press reports. The news service notes, “Despite the spike, the number of cases is well within a normal flu season for Mexico, which can see from 5,000 to 11,000 incidents of all strains,” Woldenberg said. “The low appearance of the H1N1 virus the past two years is one reason it’s drawing so much media attention in Mexico,” the AP writes, adding, “Public nervousness about H1N1 has been high since the first outbreak in spring 2009, when the virus initially appeared to have a high mortality rate and Mexican authorities closed restaurants, schools, museums, libraries, and theaters to stop its spread” (2/1).
WHO Meeting Decides To Extend Moratorium On Bird Flu Research, Delay Full Publication Of Two Studies Detailing Lab-Modified Strains
A group of 22 public health and influenza experts reached a consensus on Friday at a WHO-convened meeting regarding the work of two research teams that created genetically altered strains of the H5N1 bird flu virus that are easily transmissible among ferrets, a laboratory model for humans, a WHO press release reports (2/17). “In December, the [U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity] asked two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science, to withhold details of the research for fear it could be used by bioterrorists,” Reuters writes, adding that on January 20, flu researchers also imposed a 60-day moratorium on continuing research using highly pathogenic strains (Nebehay/Kelland, 2/17). At the meeting, the group agreed to “extending the temporary moratorium on research with new laboratory-modified H5N1 viruses and recogni[zed] that research on naturally occurring H5N1 influenza virus must continue in order to protect public health,” the press release states, adding that they “also came to a consensus that delayed publication of the entire manuscripts would have more public health benefit than urgently partially publishing” (2/17).
Attendees of a recent WHO meeting that discussed the possible publication in the journals Nature and Science of two studies that modified H5N1 bird flu strains to show the virus could be more easily transmissible among humans decided publication of redacted versions would be ineffective and that “a system for distributing the full paper only to selected individuals would be impossible to set up on any relevant timescale,” a Nature editorial states. Participants also learned “not only does the mammalian transmissibility threat seem greater than previously thought, but also that current avian viruses have some of the mutations identified in the new work,” according to the editorial.
In an analysis (.pdf) published Thursday in the online edition of the journal Science, a team led by virologist Peter Palese of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York raises questions about the WHO’s estimated fatality rate from H5N1 bird flu, saying the rate of 59 percent is based on “an estimate of human bird flu cases that is simply too low,” Reuters reports. The WHO has recorded 586 cases of people infected by bird flu, and of those, 346 have died, the news agency notes (Begley, 2/23). Palese and colleagues say “it is not possible to determine an accurate fatality rate for H5N1 infections based on” available data, but “if one assumes a one to two percent infection rate in exposed populations, this would likely translate into millions of people who have been infected, worldwide” (Wang et al., 2/24). And in a paper published Friday in mBio, the journal of the American Society for Microbiology, Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota and a member of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) and a colleague conclude that “[t]he available seroepidemiologic data for human H5N1 infection support the current WHO-reported case-fatality rates of 30% to 80%” (Osterholm/Kelley, 2/24).
A two-day Royal Society meeting held this week in London — which examined “whether scientific journals should occasionally publish censored versions of papers because the full ones might prove useful to terrorists” — “brought scientists no closer to resolving the question of whether there are any kinds of experiments whose results should be kept from the public,” the Washington Post reports. “The audience of about 200 scientists and ethicists considered numerous questions,” the newspaper writes, noting, “There was general agreement that some experiments are off limits, such as attempting to make the AIDS virus transmissible by air,” but “[t]here was less agreement about the experiments at hand, which changed the characteristics of H5N1 bird flu.”
“[T]he controversy over the research into the genetic modification of the H5N1 flu virus, finally approved for publication, should offer a reminder of the importance of debate” over dual-use technology, a Nature editorial states. “[D]ual-use basic research is a special case because its implications, for good and bad, are often viewed with the greatest clarity by only a small minority of people,” and often only “[t]he scientists involved (and they are increasingly specialists in very small fields) … can fully understand the risks posed by a line of research,” according to the editorial. “There are disadvantages to leaving it up to outsiders to initiate debate about risks, benefits and ethics,” the editorials states, noting three disadvantages, including the risk of misconceptions and a lack of knowledge about how to handle some research.
In a Huffington Post Blog opinion piece, Orin Levine, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC), describes watching the suffering of an infant with severe pneumonia and his parents while in Ghana on Thursday, writing that the experience was “a personal reminder as to why our work to prevent disease is so perilous, and why disease control so promising in Africa.” Noting that last year in Ghana, “approximately 50,000 young children — nearly seven out of every 100 — died before their fifth birthday,” Levine adds, “I also saw the promise of prevention in Ghana,” with the launch of an immunization campaign to provide both pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines. With support from the GAVI Alliance, Ghana is the first country in Africa to introduce two new vaccines against pneumonia and diarrhea at the same time,” he notes.