“A new virus from the same family as SARS which sparked a global alert in September has now killed two people in Saudi Arabia, and total cases there and in Qatar have reached six, the World Health Organization said” on Friday, Reuters reports (Kelland, 11/23). “Of the six known cases … two have been fatal” and “[o]nly two were clearly connected,” as they were members of the same family, according to the New York Times (McNeil, 11/23). In 2003, nearly 8,500 people worldwide were infected by SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, and about 900 of those people died, the Associated Press/CBS News reports. “The WHO said it was continuing to work with the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other international health partners to gain a better understanding of the [current] virus,” the news service notes (11/23).
Since the outbreak of what became known as SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, 10 years ago, scientists have been quick to identify and contain new viruses, which they attribute to improved communication among researchers and from the general public, NPR’s “Shots” blog reports. In addition to the Internet and social media, the International Health Regulations, which went into effect in 2007, “require countries to report disease outbreaks right away to the World Health Organization,” according to the blog. “Better communications aside, the world has another big advantage over the SARS era,” as the genetic sequencing of new pathogens can be determined quickly, rather than over a period of months, the blog writes, noting, “Knowing the genetic sequence gives researchers a lot of clues about where the virus may have come from” and “also has enabled them to devise a quick and reliable diagnostic test, plus a confirmatory test, so doctors can tell if an acutely ill patient is infected with the new virus or something else” (Knox, 10/3).
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).
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.”
NIH Official Discusses Reaction To Bird Flu Studies, Development Of Publishing Mechanism In Nature Interview
Nature interviews Amy Patterson, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Science Policy, which administers the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), about the board’s decision in December to advise against full publication of “two papers on avian flu (H5N1) [that] could pose a biosecurity risk if published in their entirety.” Patterson discusses the efforts of the board and the “international flu community” to “develop a mechanism by which important details from the papers could be withheld from the general public while remaining accessible to public health officials and researchers studying the virus,” Nature writes (Ledford, 1/11).
“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.”
NSABB Calls For Global Guidelines For Conducting, Communicating Research Involving Dangerous Pathogens
NewScientist reports on the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity’s (NSABB) recommendation that revised versions of two controversial studies on H5N1 avian flu be published in scientific journals, reversing its previous recommendation that the studies only be published if certain details were withheld. According to the news service, dissent among the board members over the issue has prompted the committee to “propos[e] talks to draft global guidelines for doing and communicating work involving dangerous pathogens.”
“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).
Following the conclusion of a two-day meeting at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this week — meant “to gather feedback from flu researchers, others in the science community, and the public on its draft framework for funding H5N1 gain-of-function studies and to continue an international dialogue on issues related to benefits and risks of the research” — “experts anticipated that a voluntary moratorium on work with lab-modified strains that have increased transmissibility might end soon,” CIDRAP News reports (Schnirring, 12/18). “That’s because officials at the National Institutes of Health say they will be moving swiftly to finalize a new process for deciding whether or not to fund proposed experiments that could potentially create more dangerous forms of the bird flu virus H5N1,” NPR’s “Shots” blog notes.
CIDRAP News reports on a two-day meeting at the National Institutes of Health during which “researchers, biosecurity experts, and others” discussed the “crafting [of] a framework for funding H5N1 avian influenza gain-of-function studies.” The meeting “is the latest chapter in an intense scientific controversy that was triggered by the publication of two recent studies involving lab-engineered H5N1 strains that showed signs of being transmissible in mammals,” according to the news service. “The global scientific community is closely watching the framework discussions, because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is one of the world’s biggest funders of H5N1 research, including the two studies that sparked the controversy,” CIDRAP writes, adding, “Studies on H5N1 are considered a key pandemic preparedness step, and research findings have been used to help governments guide the development of vaccine and antiviral countermeasures.” According to the news service, “The HHS will post a summary and video of the meeting at a later date for those who weren’t able to attend, and it is encouraging people to submit written comments by Jan 10, 2013” (Schnirring, 12/17).