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Researchers, Experts Debate Publication Of H5N1 Research Amid Updated Studies

“As researchers from both sides of the debate over two controversial H5N1 studies weighed in [Tuesday] on full publication versus a more cautionary approach, two U.S. journals” — the Journal of Infectious Diseases (JID) and its sister publication, Clinical Infectious Diseases — “said they are developing policies to address any future such instances,” CIDRAP News writes. “We are developing policies that address these issues on a case-by-case basis, so that freedom of scientific expression can be maintained without sacrificing individual safety or national security,” JID Editor Martin Hirsch wrote in an editorial, the news service notes, adding, “He also introduced three new JID perspective pieces that discuss the difficult issues” (Schnirring, 3/28).

Scientific Research Is Crucial To Preventing, Controlling, Eradicating Infectious Diseases

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.

U.S. Releases Policy Requiring Dual-Use Biological Research Reviews Amid Bird Flu Debate

“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).

Additional Discussion Needed Before Final Decision Made On Publication Of Bird Flu Studies

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.

WHO Confirms Bird Flu Cases In Egypt, China

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).

More Sophisticated Process Needed To Vet Research For Possible Security Threats

Noting that the journal Science last week published the second of two controversial bird flu research papers, in which a team led by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam created a mutated strain of the virus that spreads easily among ferrets, a Washington Post editorial writes that “this is not the end of the story. Rather, it marks the beginning of an important chapter for both science and security.” The editorial continues, “The United States and other nations need a more sophisticated process for vetting research for possible security threats without discouraging or impairing scientists,” adding, “This is more difficult than it sounds.”

Discussion Of NSABB Recommendation To Publish Controversial Bird Flu Studies To Continue In London Meeting

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity’s (NSABB) “reversal on publishing two controversial H5N1 studies is poised to shift discussions on the topic that continue in London this week, as more participants in the debate weigh in following the March 30 announcement,” CIDRAP News reports (Schnirring, 4/2). But Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University, who is the acting chair of the panel, stressed on Monday that the “recommendation that two controversial papers on bird flu be published in full is not a reversal of the stand it took last year out of concerns over terrorism,” Reuters writes. “‘We had new information, confidential information, about benefits of this research, and we also had confidential information about the risks involved,'” Keim said, according to the news service (Kelland/Begley, 4/2).

Funders Should Follow Lead Of U.S. In Creating Policies For Scientific Research Oversight

“[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.

About 47M Infected, 10,000 Dead From H1N1 In U.S., CDC Says

U.S. health officials on Thursday announced nearly 10,000 people in the U.S. had died from H1N1 (swine flu) since the virus was first reported in April, the New York Times reports. The latest numbers mark a “significant jump” from CDC’s estimate last month of 4,000 deaths in the U.S., the newspaper writes (McNeil, 12/10).