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.”
Pneumonia & Flu
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).
The WHO on Thursday “announced the deaths of two men from H5N1 avian influenza, one from Egypt and another from China whose death was reported earlier in the media,” CIDRAP News reports. Both men are suspected to have contracted the virus from avian sources, although an investigation into the man from China’s exposure to the virus is ongoing, according to news service. “The two infections and deaths push the WHO global H5N1 count to 576 cases and 339 deaths. According to WHO records, the number of H5N1 cases and deaths reported in 2011 so far are modestly higher than 2010 (60 cases versus 48, and 33 deaths versus 24),” CIDRAP writes (Schnirring, 1/5).
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.”
Research into transmissible bird flu strains remains “urgent” despite flu investigators’ recent declaration of a “60-day moratorium on avian flu transmission because of the current controversy,” Yoshihiro Kawaoka of Tokyo University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “a lead researcher on one of two recent studies showing how H5N1 can be transmitted through airborne droplets” among ferrets, writes in a commentary published Wednesday in the journal Nature, Reuters reports. In December, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity “asked two leading journals, Nature and Science, to withhold details of both studies for fear it could be used by bioterrorists,” the news agency notes.
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.”
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).
“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.
“The World Health Organization issued a stern warning on Friday to scientists who have engineered a highly pathogenic form of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, saying their work carries significant risks and must be tightly controlled,” Reuters reports (Kelland, 12/30). The agency “warned … that while such studies were important, they could have deadly consequences,” the New York Times writes (McNeil/Grady, 1/2).
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).