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Updated: January 27, 2012 00:20 IST

Censorship won't stop bird flu contagion

R. Prasad
Comment (6)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

The ‘security threat' posed by H5NI mutations is already out there. What is needed is collaborative research based on the sharing of scientific literature.

The United States National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) decision to “recommend” that Science and Nature journals publish only redacted versions of bird flu research results is nothing but an exaggerated and over-zealous reaction that is bound to fail in its prime objective. Most of the information the United States government intends to censor is already available in scientific literature. If anything, its decision will only seriously impact legitimate flu researchers.

The core of the issue is the advisability of sharing publicly through journals the results of a man-made H5N1 mutant that has all the characteristics of a virus capable of creating a global pandemic — a lethal strain that spreads through air and maintains its virulence after killing its infected hosts.

The problem arises as researchers and the government agency look at the results with totally different priorities. The NSABB sees it from a narrow national security point of view — the perceived threat of someone using the sensitive information to engage in bio-terrorism. But researchers are driven by public health concerns.

The controversy

The controversy started when Science, in accordance with the Dutch Code of Conduct for Biosecurity and the U.S. regulations on “dual use” research, sought the NSABB's advice on a paper submitted to it for publication. The research was carried out by a team led by Ron A.M. Fouchier of the Rotterdam-based Erasmus Medical Center.

Virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison and his team also studied the same problem and submitted their paper to Nature. This paper too was reviewed by the agency.

In an unparalleled move, the NSABB took exception to both the studies, approved and funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Science (NIH), and “recommended” that both journals publish only a redacted version. The censored papers, bereft of sensitive details of H5N1 transmissibility, will prevent misuse, the agency believes.

But the editors of both journals have stood firm and have expressed concerns about “withholding potentially important public-health information from responsible influenza researchers.” What course the journals finally take rests primarily on how the government institutes a mechanism that identifies legitimate researchers and quickly provides full access to the censored papers on a need-to-know basis.

Meanwhile, a letter signed by 39 influenza researchers around the world, and jointly published in both the journals on January 20, has called for a 60-day voluntary moratorium on any research connected to the transmission of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza. This period will be used for “informed global discussions” regarding the “regulation and subsequent publication” of dual-use flu research.

Malta conference

The research details have been in the eye of the storm ever since Dr. Fouchier presented the broad details of his team's study at the annual conference of the European Scientific Working Group on Influenza in Malta in September 2011.

The prevailing notion is that the highly virulent influenza strains can turn pandemic only through airborne transmission. Avian influenza, H5N1 in particular, has so far not attained this capability, and is generally considered incapable of attaining such ability.

For instance, there has not been sustained human-to-human transmission of the bird-flu virus since its outbreak in April 1997. Nearly all of the 577 laboratory-confirmed human cases, which killed 340, were contracted only through direct contact with animals.

Yet, the eventuality of H5N1 mutating into a transmittable, virulent form cannot be completely ruled out. Influenza researchers, hence, wish to stay a step ahead of the virus. This can be achieved only by knowing in advance the kind of mutations required for pandemic-causing viruses to emerge and the conditions under which they can emerge. This prompted the two teams to carry out their experiments.

Contrary to our current understanding, the virulent strains produced by the teams were capable of airborne transmission. The team led by Dr. Fouchier started off by introducing three mutations to the virus. This was sufficient to kill ferrets (considered the best animal models for influenza research as they closely mimic human responses to flu), but lacked the ability to spread through aerosols.

The researchers then turned to the time-tested method of passing the virus from one infected ferret to another many times. After the 10th transmission, the virus had many more mutations, two of which acted in unison with the three already introduced to make the virus easily transmissible by air.

The virus created by Dr. Kawaoka, though transmissible by air, lacked the virulence to kill the ferrets. Currently available vaccines were effective against the strain.

Reaction of scientists

Despite these findings, the concerned authors and other scientists insist the perceived security threats cannot be allowed to override genuine public health concerns.

For instance, Dr. Kawaoka has made a strong case to make the full paper freely available to all scientists across the field. Getting researchers from other areas involved has become absolutely necessary as “new ideas are needed to answer some of the urgent questions,” he wrote in a comment piece in the January 26 issue of Nature. The specific mutations that his team identified suggest that “influenza transmission is more complex than anticipated.”

“We did not develop novel methods and we only used information and methods that are available freely from the scientific literature,” writes Dr. Fouchier in an opinion piece in Science (January 19, 2012). All three mutations introduced by his team are already present in nature. Similarly, the two that the virus developed are also seen in nature. What made the virus transmissible through aerosols was the lethal combination of these five mutations. It is, therefore, naive to assume that such a combination would never occur on its own.

The futility of censoring the results has also been driven home by Daniel R. Perez of the University of Maryland in his opinion piece in the same issue of Science. “[... These] two and other research groups [that] have already published similar studies in the past make it almost impossible to prevent access to details on the methodology,” he emphasises.

Assumptions proved wrong

Apart from disproving the impossibility of airborne transmission, the mutant strain has proven wrong three other important assumptions of H5N1 virus — only virus subtypes H1, H2 and H3 can cause pandemics; flu viruses cannot cause pandemics without genetic mixing (reassortment) of human and animal viruses; and the inevitability of pigs as an intermediate host to yield pandemic viruses.

There is another issue that has unfortunately not attracted sufficient attention. Researchers across specialisations in Southeast Asian countries, where H5N1 is endemic in poultry, have a right to know the full details of the study. Apart from being the worst affected, these countries have a right to have free access to the results as they fulfil their obligation of supplying H5N1 virus samples to WHO collaborating laboratories. In turn, they have a right to access the benefits of research and vaccines arising from research using their data. Indonesia, a hotbed of bird flu outbreaks, brought the spotlight on the inequity of the current sharing mechanism when it stopped sharing its samples with WHO in 2007.

Dr. Fouchier warns that the WHO-coordinated Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) Framework that went into effect last year is based on the principle of mutual sharing of samples for access to vaccines and other benefits by these countries.

“Withholding information” from countries that share samples will be a “major step backward in the field of global infectious disease surveillance and research,” he says.

rprasad@thehindu.co.in

More In: Lead | Opinion

why bihar is away from this epidemic where loan has been provided to serve these birds. There is no survey in Bihar and banks provides even insurance to these birds.

from:  Niraj kumar sinh
Posted on: Jan 29, 2012 at 17:51 IST

First of, I have every respect for science, scientific methods and research in general. However that respect ends when scientists mess around with nature in a way that could cause millions if not billions of deaths. In this case they took a highly deadly virus and then changed it themselves into something that could be transmitted from human to human. They did not want to stop there however. They wanted to publish how they did it. First the act of modifying the virus in itself is a highly irresponsible thing to do in the types of laboritories they were working in. After that they wanted to publish their data. There are many times where we must defend the right to free speech and the right to exchange ideas freely. This is not one of those times.

from:  Pritish
Posted on: Jan 28, 2012 at 00:11 IST

There are many videos on youtube where patients with HIV have come out strongly against the AIDS medicine AZT and said they only got sicker with the drug. Many when retested at a another center were found HIV free and only those who stopped medicines got cured completely by eating a sensible diet and exercise!. Malaysia too culled thousands of birds in a brutal manner and a Tsunami came and took the same amount of people to their death in the sea. Japan has killed for fun thousands of dolphins and they too got their due from the recent Tsunami. It is absolutely imperative not to waste any living form of life that has and will not harm Humans, These viruses are all concoctions of pharmaceutical companies and even French scientists have admitted that the AIDS virus does not exist. There are thousands of deaths from monoxide pollution from cars, common flu, influenza from asbestos roofing and other pollutants but we don't do away with cars,asbestos,factories etc so why cull the birds?

from:  angela alvares
Posted on: Jan 27, 2012 at 20:25 IST

Most of these stories of viruses existing are just cooked up stories by the pharmas to sell and make money with vaccines and medications.
I have handled pet chickens who had all kinds of flu, held them and nursed them to health and nothing has happened to me. Unfortunately when birds fly over highly polluted countries like China which has a deadly brown cloud of pollution over i(Asian brown cloud) birds that fly through this area get their lungs damaged by the toxic pollution and then degradation of their respiratory system sets in. This craziness of killing (sometimes throwing live birds by the hundreds into pits and killing them by suffocation is the worse cruelty humans can mete out to these poor creatures whose lives are then wasted. These birds can be cooked and canned and given as food to countries where people are starving and I can guarantee you 100% NOONE will contract and die from eating them. Aids was transferred from monkeys they said and where are the pandemics from AIDS?

from:  angela alvares
Posted on: Jan 27, 2012 at 20:13 IST

The Restriction to share such highly virulent samples is welcome, but standing in the shoes of researchers , the WHO should consider for legitimate researchers who are striving for information. WHO should form and stricly monitor a committee which identifies the legitimate researchers who really need for good purpose and to prevent bio-terrorism.

from:  Gukan Kumarasamy
Posted on: Jan 27, 2012 at 12:56 IST

Restricting the publication of the details of research on H5N1 virulent strain of influenza virus, that is capable of airborne transmission, is not because of the national security of the US alone but because of threats to humanity at large. Scientific studies on anthrax and small pox are also subject to the same restrictions. There is increased demand for the distruction of the only stocks of small pox virus with WHO and Russia. Once the gene comes out of the bottle, it can cause millions of deaths worldwide. The achievements of public health in the erradication of small pox and polio outweigh the benefits of introducing man made virulent strains of these viruses. The highly virulent airborne transmissible strain of H5N1 is dangerous to humanity at a time when there is no effective prevention or treatment for even the common strains of influenza virus. We need vaccines and treatments for influenza before research on man made strains of influenza virus that are dangerous to humanity.

from:  Davis K. Thanjan
Posted on: Jan 27, 2012 at 07:34 IST
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