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January 2012, Week 4

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Sun, 22 Jan 2012 22:27:58 -0500
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Controversial Killer Flu Research Paused
By Brandon Keim Email Author
Wired Science
January 20, 2012 
http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/01/mutant-h5n1-moratorium/#more-93262

Researchers developing extra-contagious strains of H5N1
avian influenza have agreed to pause their work for 60
days.

The moratorium, announced Jan. 20 in Nature and Science,
is a response to public fear and alarm in the scientific
community, which has split over whether the research
could inadvertently lead to release of a nightmare
disease.

Depending on perspective, the moratorium is either a
genuine recognition of the need for broader discussion
or a public relations gesture. Either way, it's a chance
for everyone to catch their breath without reaching for
a mask.

Fear that the viruses "may escape from the laboratories
has generated intense public debate in the media on the
benefits and potential harm of this type of research,"
the researchers wrote in an open letter declaring the
moratorium. "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."

The controversy began in November when ScienceInsider
reported that two teams of virologists - one led by Ron
Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands ,
the other by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of
Wisconsin - had developed H5N1 strains capable of
passing easily between ferrets, which are used as models
for influenza infection in humans. Whether the strains
are as easily transmissible between people isn't known,
but is considered possible.

In humans, H5N1 is extraordinarily virulent - mortality
runs between 60 and 80 percent - but far less
contagious, requiring prolonged contact with infected
birds or people. That it could become more contagious is
a public health fear of the first order: Containing an
outbreak would be extremely difficult, perhaps
impossible, and millions of people would almost
certainly die. It's also a fear full of scientific
unknowns. Despite a seemingly simple genome containing
just a handful of genes, scientists don't know what
mutations could make H5N1 more transmissible between
humans.

The research by Fouchier, Kawaoka and other labs was
intended to identify those mutations, giving researchers
an idea of what to look for in naturally evolving
influenza, and perhaps allowing for early warning of
strains that are just a few mutations away from causing
human pandemics. But when the general outlines of the
research became public - detailed descriptions await
formal publication, and key details will be redacted at
the request of a federal biosecurity committee - outrage
followed.

Critics, including many high-profile virologists,
epidemiologists and biosecurity experts, said it was
possible that would-be biological terrorists could use
the research to develop weaponized flu strains. Another,
perhaps more frightening possibility was unintentional
release: dozens of accidental infections (.pdf) have
occurred at high-security laboratories in the United
States, and it's thought that one now-global flu strain
may actually have escaped from a Russian laboratory in
the 1970s. Against these risks, the benefits were
arguable, and some virologists even said that mutations
engineered in a laboratory didn't necessarily illuminate
future dangers.

"The research should never have been undertaken because
the potential harm is so catastrophic and the potential
benefits from studying the virus so speculative," opined
the New York Times in a Jan. 8 editorial entitled "An
Engineered Doomsday." 'We do not need to hear anything
from the virus cowboys. They need to hear from us.'

By declaring the 60 day moratorium, which will pause
both further H5N1 engineering and experiments on the
existing mutant strains, the researchers attempt to
allay these fears.

"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," they write. "We propose to do so in
an international forum in which the scientific community
comes together to discuss and debate these issues."

Reception to the moratorium appears mixed. Michael
Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota's Center
for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and a member
of the federal committee that recommended redacting the
findings, told Nature News that 60 days is far too short
a time for developing any meaningful policies. "I just
don't think that's realistic," he said.

Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University microbiologist and
vocal critic of the research, called the moratorium "an
empty gesture. Strictly public relations."

Contrary to the researchers' insistence that the work
was "using the highest international standards of
biosafety and biosecurity," it was conducted at so-
called Biosafety Level 3 - a set of techniques and
safeguards less strict than is used for Ebola and the
Marburg virus, which pose less potential threat than an
H5N1 strain that easily infects people. And outside of
biosafety committees at researchers' institutions, there
appears to have been no official discussion of potential
safety risks until the controversy made it unavoidable.

Through the moratorium, the researchers are "seeking
only an opportunity to `explain the benefits of this
important research and the measures taken to minimize
its possible risks,' thereby educating benighted policy
makers and the public, eliminating their `perceived
fear,'" said Ebright, quoting the moratorium's
announcement. "We do not need to hear anything from the
virus cowboys. They need to hear from us."

Columbia University epidemiologist Stephen Morse struck
a more conciliatory note. "This may be the first time
the issue has come up, but it certainly won't be the
last," he said. "I hope we can take advantage of the
opportunity to clarify these issues, and be better
prepared the next time a similar situation comes up."

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