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Bird Flu Debate Continues

A series of articles published in open access journal mBio underscores the variety in opinion on whether a transmissible H5N1 strain should be studied.

By | March 8, 2012

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, UNITED STATES ARMY MEDICAL RESEARCH INSTITUTE OF INFECTIOUS DISEASE

On March 6, four papers were published in the open access journal mBio offering a range of perspectives on whether the strains of H5N1 bird flu that are transmissible in ferrets should be published and studied.

The strains have been the focus of debate since September, when word of the transmissible viruses first emerged. In December, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended that certain parts of the research, slated to be published in Nature and Science, be redacted—and 3 dozen researchers agreed. But after the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that the research should be published in full last month, the NSABB decided to give it a second look, reopening debate.

Here’s a glance at the four papers, underscoring the diversity of views on the topic:

  • “[W]e urge that great consideration be given to protecting the influenza research enterprise, since increased knowledge is critical for the defense against future pandemics,” argues a summary editorial. The two main issues the authors identify are case fatality rate, which lies “at the heart of the controversies,” the article says, and biocontainment rules, because although limiting such research to high-security labs means better safety, it also could “make society potentially more vulnerable, since critical experimental work will not get done simply because BSL4 facilities are few in number.”
  • In a commentary, microbiologist Adolfo García-Sastre of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine agrees that the virus should be studied in a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) lab, without the need to upgrade to BSL-4 as some researchers have recommended. His argument, however, is not that the need to understand the virus outweighs safety issues; rather, BSL-4 laboratories are traditionally only used to study “dangerous pathogens for which neither therapeutics nor vaccines are available.” And because H5N1 is both treatable by drugs and by vaccination, only a BSL-3 facility is required.
  • The University of Michigan’s Michael Imperiale, who serves on the NSABB, and Michael Hanna disagree. While the virus falls into a BSL-3 requirement in its current state, “making the H5N1 virus transmissible among mammals change[s] its biosafety profile,” warranting the move to BSL-4 labs, they argue in a commentary However, they note that this isn’t a permanent decision and the biosafety level could always be ratcheted down—as occurred with recombinant DNA research, which, although it “is almost hard to believe today,” was originally performed in BSL-4 labs.
  • “It would be beneficial to err on the side of caution,” argues Lisa Murillo of Los Alamos National Laboratory in a letter to the editors. Murillo argues that, although a recent meta-analysis found that the WHO’s H5N1 fatality rate of 59 percent is an overestimate, it is better to be safe than sorry and not publish the results.

Stay tuned for our April issue, where more expert opinions on this controversial issue will be discussed.

 

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Comments

Avatar of: Rick Bogle

Rick Bogle

Posts: 1457

March 8, 2012

Other voices need to be heard. Experts assured us that Iraq had amassed an arsenal of WMD. Experts were certain that foot and mouth disease couldn't escape from the Porton Down. Vioxx was safe. A long list of similar claims and decisions made by experts ought to tell us that insiders ought not be making the final decisions.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 8, 2012

Other voices need to be heard. Experts assured us that Iraq had amassed an arsenal of WMD. Experts were certain that foot and mouth disease couldn't escape from the Porton Down. Vioxx was safe. A long list of similar claims and decisions made by experts ought to tell us that insiders ought not be making the final decisions.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 9, 2012

To think clearly, we need to use words carefully.  The above post (from Rick Bogle) uses the words "expert" and "insider" interchangeably, thereby suggesting that expertise carries an automatic taint of conflict of interest. 
 
Most egregious is the remark that "experts assured us that Iraq had amassed an arsenal of WMD."  Ironically, the opposite was the case.  In the runup to the Iraq war, politicians and policy makers deliberately distorted the mostly accurate intelligence information provided by experts, in order to publicly justify a prior decision to go to war.  These decisions sprang from precisely the disdain for expertise that is expressed in the above post. 
 
 Near the beginning of the Iraq war, the comic strip "Nonsequitur" ran a cartoon entitled "The Pre-Emptive War Hero", in which a heavily decorated man in uniform is explaining his medals to an admiring young woman at a cocktail party.  The caption says, "And this one is for exceptional valor in the misinterpretation of intelligence data." 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

March 9, 2012

To give this story more happier note, I would like to share with you a game I recently discovered where you fight flu viruses on your iPhone :) It is called Nose Invaders - http://itunes.apple.com/us/app...

Avatar of: mightythor

mightythor

Posts: 1457

March 9, 2012

To think clearly, we need to use words carefully.  The above post (from Rick Bogle) uses the words "expert" and "insider" interchangeably, thereby suggesting that expertise carries an automatic taint of conflict of interest. 
 
Most egregious is the remark that "experts assured us that Iraq had amassed an arsenal of WMD."  Ironically, the opposite was the case.  In the runup to the Iraq war, politicians and policy makers deliberately distorted the mostly accurate intelligence information provided by experts, in order to publicly justify a prior decision to go to war.  These decisions sprang from precisely the disdain for expertise that is expressed in the above post. 
 
 Near the beginning of the Iraq war, the comic strip "Nonsequitur" ran a cartoon entitled "The Pre-Emptive War Hero", in which a heavily decorated man in uniform is explaining his medals to an admiring young woman at a cocktail party.  The caption says, "And this one is for exceptional valor in the misinterpretation of intelligence data." 

Avatar of: Mladen Djordjevic

Mladen Djordjevic

Posts: 1457

March 9, 2012

To give this story more happier note, I would like to share with you a game I recently discovered where you fight flu viruses on your iPhone :) It is called Nose Invaders - http://itunes.apple.com/us/app...

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