Fears over a massive bird flu pandemic are nothing new. Since the first human infection in 1997, hundreds of people across the world, mainly in Southeast Asia, have been infected. Of those hundreds, about 60 percent died. Fortunately, human-to-human transmission is very improbable, although possible. Instead, you pretty much have to be partying with an infected bird to catch it.
The concern has been about mutation: What if bird flu, a.k.a. H5N1, changes into a form that is easily transmissible, as transmissible as common flu? It would spread fast and kill like few things humans have seen. Last September, it was announced that researchers have saved H5N1 the trouble of mutating and created versions of the virus easily passed between lab ferrets, indicating that they’re probably versions easily passed between humans.
The goal isn’t evil. Work like this is done to help develop vaccines and make sure a naturally occurring H5N1 pandemic isn’t a large-scale global catastrophe. The more you know. . . But there’s a large debate brewing about how to contain both the H5N1 virus itself as well as the research about it. Today, Nature published a blog post claiming that Science had received a copy of a completed study announced in September courtesy of virologist/lead researcher Dr. Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, who we can thank for creating one of the transmissible versions of the bug, while Nature had received a copy of a different study done by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who’d created another transmissible version. (Both versions were announced in September.)
The two publications now face the question of whether or not to publish the studies. They could enable more and better research across the world, but it could also wind up with someone interested in making H5N1 for more sinister purposes. Right about the time I finished that first paragraph, my email box dinged with a note from the editor-in-chief of Science, Dr. Bruce Alberts, laying out the conundrum and hinting that it will likely publish the research:
The resulting virus is sensitive to antivirals and to certain vaccine candidates and knowledge about it could well be essential for speeding the development of new treatments to combat this lethal form of influenza. The [National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB)] has emphasized the need to prevent the details of the research from falling into the wrong hands. We strongly support the work of the NSABB and the importance of its mission for advancing science to serve society. At the same time, however, Science has concerns about withholding potentially important public-health information from responsible influenza researchers. Many scientists within the influenza community have a bona fide need to know the details of this research in order to protect the public, especially if they currently are working with related strains of the virus.
Alberts also quotes from the Statement on Scientific Publication and Security released jointly by Science, Nature, and PNAS — the heavies among research publications/journals — in 2003: “open publication brings benefits not only to public health but also to efforts to combat terrorism.” Safe to say most anyone that wants access to the research will have it soon enough.
The second debate about H5N1 is also related to the question of researcher access. What level of security should it have. Both versions above were created in labs with “biosafety level 3” ratings, which require scientists to “shower and change clothes when leaving the lab, and include other safety features such as negative air pressure and passing exhaust air through high-efficiency particulate air filters,” according to Nature. Some researchers, however, think the new H5N1 deserves a higher security level, which consequently limits the number of labs that can work on “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make,” in Fouchier’s words. But the trade-off there is that less labs would then have access to it, hampering research.
Not that a “4” biosafety rating makes a whole lot of difference. Over the past decade, SARS escaped in several labs, including those rated a “4.” Meanwhile, the US National Research Council detailed 395 different biosafety breaches in this country alone between 2003 and 2009. No system is perfect.
Here’s another scary thing: in the US, oversight for biosaftey is voluntary. "What’s remarkable,” says Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist and biodefence expert at Rutgers, is that H5N1 research, “which puts at risk not one individual but potentially hundreds, thousands or millions of individuals, there is no oversight whatsoever.”
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- Why The H1N1 Virus Had Such A Small Bite
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