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.
Pneumonia & Flu
“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).
“Details of a genetically altered strain of the deadly avian flu virus are ‘a grave concern’ to public safety and should be kept under wraps,” the 23-member National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity declared Tuesday “[i]n a letter released by the journals Science (.pdf) and Nature,” CNN reports (1/31). “The board explains that its main concern was that publishing the experiments in detail could help someone to develop viruses for harmful purposes,” BBC News writes, adding, “But it acknowledges the work holds ‘clear benefits’ in alerting humanity to the potential H5N1 threat, and that it could lead to greater preparation and potential development of novel strategies for disease control” (Walsh, 1/31).
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).
The NIH is expected on February 1 to release a statement explaining how the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) reached a decision in November to recommend “that two scientific papers describing research that created strains of bird flu potentially transmissible in humans should be published only if key details are omitted,” for fear “that terrorists or hostile nations could learn how to cause a pandemic,” a New York Times editorial by Philip Boffey, Times science editorial writer, states.
Global Health Frontline News (GHFN) reports on efforts to produce and provide clean cookstoves to people in Tanzania. The WHO estimates that indoor air pollution caused by smoke from cooking fires contributes to two million premature deaths annually, more than are caused by tuberculosis or malaria, according to GHFN. The piece includes comments from Radha Muthiah, executive director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, and Everline Kihulla, who works for the Tanzanian clean cookstove manufacturer TaTedo (Striker, January 2012).
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.
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.
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.