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Number Of Fatalities From 2009 Swine Flu Pandemic Might Have Been 15 Times Higher Than Reported Deaths, Study Says

In a study published on Monday in the Lancet Infectious Diseases, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic likely killed about 284,500 people worldwide between August 2009 and August 2010, a number 15 times higher than the 18,500 deaths reported to the WHO, Bloomberg News reports. “More than half the deaths may have been in southeast Asia and Africa, compared with 12 percent of officially reported fatalities, the authors wrote,” the news agency states (Bennett, 6/25). The reported cases “were only the deaths confirmed by lab testing, which the WHO itself warned was a gross underestimate because the deaths of people without access to the health system go uncounted, and because the virus is not always detectable after a victim dies,” Reuters writes (Begley, 6/25).

New York Times Examines Bird Flu Studies, History Of Controversy

The New York Times examines several studies published in the journals Nature and Science looking at how the H5N1 bird flu virus could mutate to become more virulent among humans and outlines the history of controversy surrounding the studies. “While scientists have offered two possible ways in which H5N1 might become a human flu, they’re almost certainly not the only two,” the newspaper writes, adding, “There is no checklist of mutations that any bird flu must acquire to start infecting humans.” According to the newspaper, “Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, hopes scientists will be able to amass a longer list of potential mutations, and even find a common denominator in how they alter H5N1,” which might make it “possible to monitor emerging strains for signs that they are about to cross over into humans” (Zimmer, 6/25).

U.S. Journal Science Publishes Controversial H5N1 Research

The U.S. journal Science on Thursday published the results of a controversial study in which researchers at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands “identified five mutations apparently necessary to make the [H5N1] bird flu virus spread easily among ferrets, which catch the same flus that humans do,” the New York Times reports (McNeil, 6/21). “The publication of [the] research had been delayed by several months after the U.S. government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) warned that the information should be censored to avoid being misused, for example by terrorists,” the Guardian writes, noting, “Last month, Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published details of another form of the bird flu virus that can pass between people, which was created by merging a mutated strain with the swine flu virus that sparked a human pandemic in 2009” (Jha, 6/21).

Censoring 'Dual-Use' Scientific Research Not An Effective Strategy To Mitigate Security Risks

“It’s easy to get the impression that [recent controversy over research into mutated versions of the H5N1 flu virus] has created a clear split between a scientific community that wants the research to proceed and the results to be published and a biosecurity community that doesn’t,” biological-weapons expert Tim Trevan writes in this Nature opinion piece. But “[a]s a member of this biosecurity community for more than 30 years — I was special adviser to the chairman of the United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq and covered chemical and biological disarmament with the U.K. Foreign Office in both London and Geneva, Switzerland — I believe this to be a false dichotomy,” he states.

WHO Hopes To Host Second Meeting On Issues Related To 'Dual-Use' Research

“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.

NIH Responds To Criticism Over Handling Of Controversial Bird Flu Studies

In a letter (.pdf) dated April 25, Amy Patterson, associate director for science policy in the office of the director of the National Institutes of Health, “has refuted criticism of the way a meeting held to allow a biosecurity advisory group to review controversial bird flu studies was handled,” denying “the agenda was crafted to achieve a predetermined outcome,” the Canadian Press/Winnipeg Free Press writes. Patterson was “responding to a harsh critique of the meeting from Michael Osterholm, a member of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity [NSABB],” who, in a letter (.doc) to Patterson dated April 12, criticized “the agenda and speakers list” of the March 29-30 meeting, the news service writes (Branswell, 5/4).

Nature Publishes First Of Two Controversial Studies On H5N1 Avian Flu

“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).

Dutch Government Grants Export License Allowing Publication Of Controversial H5N1 Study

“The Dutch government has agreed to grant an export license to allow Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical University in Rotterdam, to publish his work on H5N1 avian influenza in Science,” Nature’s “News Blog” reports (Owens, 4/27). “Fouchier had to get permission first from the Dutch Department of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation — in line with E.U. regulations — because a risk existed that the H5N1 virus, as well as its research, ‘could be used for the wrong purposes,’ the Dutch department said in a statement,” according to Agence France-Presse (4/28).

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.

U.S. Government Must Be Prepared To Handle Dual Use Research Of Concern

“This week, a Senate panel is investigating biological security in the wake of” controversial “potentially dangerous research” on H5N1 avian influenza, “with good reason,” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) writes in a Washington Times opinion piece. He says “the U.S. government should not have been caught by surprise” by the two research papers describing how genetic mutations to the virus could make it transmissible between ferrets, because the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) “was created in 2004 and charged with the specific responsibility of reviewing this type of research and offering guidance to all federal agencies that conduct biological research.” Sensenbrenner says the NSABB’s initial recommendation against publishing the studies and its subsequent reversal of that decision has left him with “suspicions that the U.S. government is woefully unprepared for dealing with dual use research of concern — research that, while conducted for a legitimate scientific purpose, could be dangerous if misused.”