Bird Flu Flies to Top of the Pathogen Pile

After several deaths of people in Cambodia, Vietnam and China recently, the bird flu is making a comeback in public discourse. Concerns are growing about the H5N1 strain of the influenza virus. A few years ago the world-sweeping swine flu stole headlines but the bird flu, which is much more virulent than it’s porcine cousin, has been spreading from poultry to people.

An 18-year-old duck farmer in Vietnam died last week, becoming the first bird flu fatality in that country in two years. The World Health Organization also reports that a two-year-old boy in Cambodia died from bird flu after being exposed to sick poultry in his village. Those deaths follow quickly on the heals of a 39-year-old Chinese bus driver dying on December 31 just outside of Hong Kong. And a 24-year-old man and five-year-old toddler in Indonesia also reportedly died from the bird flu this year.

The WHO says that makes 343 deaths from 582 cases of bird flu since 2003 when the virus first began hopping from birds to people.

But now growing fear over the necessary research to better understand this pathogen, which has a 60 percent mortality rate, is forcing bird flu scientists to take a 60-day break.

Researchers studying a more deadly version of the H5N1 virus that can be spread through the air voluntarily suspended their research for two months after bioethicists raised concerns of the virus being turned into a bioweapon.

Electron Micrograph of the H5N1 Influenza Virus

Electron Micrograph of the H5N1 Influenza Virus

This deep concern began in late December when a U.S. federal government scientific advisory board asked two peer-review journals not to publish the papers if they explained how they were able to genetically modify the current, naturally-occurring strain of bird flu. The government scientists made the virus even more deadly by making it airborne.

Just days after that announcement and before the papers could be published, government advisers demanded the details be kept secret and not published in scientific journals to keep the information from falling into the wrong hands.

The scientists who created the deadlier H5N1 in the lab say they needed to know if the current strain has the potential to mutate into an airborne one. It does. They just sped up the process. Knowing that key piece of information will allow countries to take more severe measures to eradicate the newly emerging illness.

Now the story about bird flu has mutated as well, raising concerns that the manmade strain of the virus is now a bigger threat than the naturally-occurring one, which seldom hops from poultry to people.

In a letter that appeared in both journalsScience and Nature, several key bird flu researchers explain why they are temporarily halting their research.

The principal investigators at the labs where the bird flu research is being conducted say that perceived fear of the new manmade strain of the flu virus escaping the lab is making them push the pause button for 60 days.

Drs. Ron Fouchier, Adolfo García-Sastre, Yoshihiro Kawaoka and 36 others recognize that they and the rest of the scientific community need to more clearly explain the benefits of bird flu research and reassure the public that the biosafety measures taken minimize its possible risks.

They say, “We have agreed on a voluntary pause of 60 days on any research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals.”

The controversial research that prompted government warnings and the voluntary research suspension centered around ferrets. The researchers proved that viruses possessing a haemagglutinin (HA) protein from highly pathogenic avian H5N1 influenza viruses can become transmissible in ferrets.

Scanning Electron Microscope Image of H5N1 Avian Flu Virus

Scanning Electron Microscope Image of H5N1 Avian Flu Virus

In a letter the researchers say, “This is critical information that advances our understanding of influenza transmission. However, more research is needed to determine how influenza viruses in nature become human pandemic threats, so that they can be contained before they acquire the ability to transmit from human to human, or so that appropriate countermeasures can be deployed if adaptation to humans occurs.”

But now the perceived fear of the ferret-infected virus escaping from the secure labs is creating a fear pandemic instead.

They continue, “We would like to assure the public that these experiments have been conducted with appropriate regulatory oversight in secure containment facilities by highly trained and responsible personnel to minimize any risk of accidental release.”

The scientists agree their research is absolutely necessary to help to public health efforts detect when the H5N1 influenza virus might change in the wild, sparking a human pandemic. But Fouchier of Erasmus Medical College in the Netherlands, Garcia-Sastre of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the lead authors on the letter in Science and Nature nevertheless are voluntarily suspending it so public perception can catch up.

Censorship in Science

When a U.S. government advisory panel told the editors of Science and Nature to censor a submitted bird flu paper, the complex issue also enjoined the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The reason for asking for censorship was noble. Biosecurity experts fear an airborne version of the H5N1 flu virus that becomes transmissible between humans could create a pandemic worse than the 1918-19 outbreak of Spanish flu that killed between 20 million and 40 million people.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) made the following recommendations about the publication of two papers submitted on the highly pathogenic avian influenza, H5N1:

1. Neither manuscript should be published with complete data and experimental details.

2. Conclusions of the manuscripts be published but without experimental details and
mutation data that would enable replication of the experiments.

a) Text should be added describing: 1) the goals of the research, 2) the potential
benefits to public health (including informing surveillance efforts, pandemic
preparedness activities, and countermeasure development and stockpiling efforts), 3)
the risk assessments performed prior to research initiation, 4) the ongoing biosafety
oversight, containment, and occupational health measures, 5) biosecurity practices
and adherence to select agent regulation, and 6) that addressing biosafety, biosecurity,
and occupational health is part of the responsible conduct of all life sciences research.

b) The NSABB should develop a statement that explains their review process and
rationale for the recommendations. This statement will be provided to the journals to
consider for publication.

c) The USG should encourage the authors to submit a special
communication/commentary letter to the journals regarding the dual use research

In other words, don’t publish the whole genome and don’t explain exactly how this mutation occurred.

Both journals responded by agreeing to the recommendations in part.

Science writer Carl Zimmer sums it up best. He describes the journals’ response, “In essence, “We haven’t decided yet. It would be nice if you let us know how responsible scientists could get hold of the data.”

Since science is rooted in reproducibility this type of censorship flies in the face of the method.

But the U.S. government does have a history of censoring sensitive science, including the recipe for nuclear fission and fusion. And now the formula for ferret to ferret transmission of bird flu.

Columbia University virologists Vincent Racaniello tells Zimmer the censorship move doesn’t make any sense. He says, “The point of a science paper is to enable others to duplicate the findings. Are we going to set a new precedent, where security matters override the reason for publication? This is setting a very dangerous precedent for virology and biological sciences in general.”

But in the end, the scientists themselves agreed to grudgingly redact contested parts of the papers.

Albert Osterhaus of Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands says this type of activity is unprecedented. He believes that public health is best served by making the information widely available. A spokesman for Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin, Madison also says the lead author will modify the paper and resubmit it.

Meanwhile the editors of Nature and Science are working with government officials to iron out a “written, transparent plan” for relevant scientists to have access to the critical details of this research, which will likely not make the published version of the papers. Science editor-in-chief Bruce Albersis confident that this all can be resolved in a couple of weeks.

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