Let’s give bird flu research a rest for two months. This is the message released yesterday in a short letter by a group of scientists led by Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, two of the principles behind a lab-created strain of easily transmissible, potentially civilization-shattering avian flu, and published online by Nature. The call comes almost a month after the U.S. government took the super-rare step of asking two leading science journals, Science and Nature, to withhold fully publishing a pair of studies, led by Fouchier and Kawaoka, out of fears that someone bad might do something bad with the information, like make their own mutant bird flu and kill everyone.
Let’s recap: avian flu is a highly lethal strain of influenza that’s spread throughout much of the world, but isn’t easily transmissible between humans. Typically, it’s spread from birds to humans. The flu you get now that makes you have a real crappy week and generally hate life is typically spread through tiny, aerosolized droplets of spit. Someone coughs on you in the subway, and the virus gets sucked into your upper respiratory tract, replicates like mad, and goes after your healthy cells. Avian flu can’t do this, however, and we don’t know why.
The concern is that it could mutate into a form of flu that can spread in aerosolized form and we won’t be prepared. So researchers have beaten nature to the punch and created mutated versions in two labs, so far anyway. This winter’s debates have been about whether or not the resulting research papers should be made public, and how research should be handled as the mutated virus spreads to new labs.
At first, Science seemed exceedingly not down with any kind of censorship, but both journals relented in the end with one very big condition: the information will be made available through some new WHO-created mechanism for being disseminating to legit researchers. The thing is that the more people work on a problem, like coming up with a vaccine or reliable treatment for avian flu, the chances of finding a solution go way up. In December, a letter from Science editor-in-chief Dr. Bruce Alberts laid it out: “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.”
So the information must get out. But the worry is that not only will the information being public potentially lead to that information falling into the wrong hands, but that new bird flu research could be happening in less than secure labs or that current lab security is inadequate, no matter that a single human has yet to catch avian flu in a lab setting. The letter assures that, so far, “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 parallel worry is that the U.S. government is asking science to censor itself, which is a weird and dirty idea just in principle. The co-signers of yesterday’s letter are asking for a cooling off period of 60 days to allow time for the science community to talk things out and explain better to the public what exactly is going on.
The letter concludes:
We recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks. We propose to do so in an international forum in which the scientific community comes together to discuss and debate these issues. We realize that organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work. To provide time for these discussions, 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. In addition, no experiments with live H5N1 or H5 HA reassortant viruses already shown to be transmissible in ferrets will be conducted during this time. We will continue to assess the transmissibility of H5N1 influenza viruses that emerge in nature and pose a continuing threat to human health.
Meanwhile in China, a second person in less than a month has died from avian flu. Notably, the latest victim had no obvious exposure to birds or anything especially birdly, raising fears about mutation. That victim doesn’t seem to have spread the virus any further, which tempers those fears somewhat. But, at the same time, maybe this isn’t the best time to be taking a break. In a short policy paper arguing for the release of last fall’s studies, University of Maryland professor Daniel R. Perez puts the overall situation well.
Smallpox was not defeated out of fear. Smallpox was defeated because Edward Jenner, among others, was fearless in his pursuit of controlling an infectious disease and in the process conferred a scientific status to the process of vaccination.
You can now resume being terrified every time your throat feels a little sore.
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