Sunday, January 29, 2012

The controversy over H5N1 research

Ferret, photo by Mika Hiltunen
Since last November, the scientific community has been shaken by what the journal Science has called "a media storm" on H5N1 research. I don't really have an a priori opinion about the potential risks of this research – I am not a virologist, after all – but this is a fascinating controversy which is of importance for microbiologists in general. Science provides us with a special page archiving the news and commentaries related to these events

It all started with experiments on H5N1 avian influenza virus that were meant to study what mutations can increase its transmissibility in ferrets (commonly used as a model animal for influenza research). Two virologists in different countries – Ron Fouchier in the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka in the USA/Japan – have managed to create H5N1 strains that are transmissible between ferrets (and thus, potentially, between human beings) and want to publish their independent results in Science (Fouchier) and Nature (Kawaoka). The question that these researchers are willing to answer is: can H5N1 cause a human pandemia, and if yes, what mutations would allow it to do so? Fouchier argues, for instance, that knowing the mutations will allow the researchers to look for them in the field, thus being proactive against the virus spread.

 Now enter the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which has reviewed both Fouchier and Kawaoka paper, and recommended that they should be redacted to withdraw sensitive information about the mutations. Such recommendation is exceptional, and the reason behind it is the so-called dual use problem, where one considers the potential use of the information by third party in order to do harm – for instance, terrorists seeking new bioweapons. Apparently, the researchers and the journals have agreed to somewhat withdraw information before the publication of the papers, at the condition that the missing information could be requested by responsible scientists.

More recently (January 20), a group of virologists (led by Fouchier and Kawaoka) wrote a statement, published in Science and Nature, which announced a 60-days moratorium on H5N1 research. In particular, they wrote: "Despite the positive public health benefits these studies sought to provide, a perceived fear that the ferret transmissible H5 HA 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". Indeed, the media have been very vocal about the potential risks of the study. An editorial in the New York Times was particularly critical of the research on avian flu, stating: "We respect the researchers' desire to protect public health. But the consequences, should the virus escape, are too devastating to risk". But this is not simply the media against the scientific community. Several virologists have also questioned the validity of this research. Most notably Michael Osterholm, from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Division of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Minnesota, who also published a commentary in Science, in which he concludes with this ominous sentence: "We can't unring a bell; should a highly transmissible and virulent H5N1 influenza virus that is of human making cause a catastrophic pandemic, whether as the result of intentional or unintentional release, the world will hold life sciences accountable for what it did or did not do to minimize that risk."

Personally, I'm much more worried of an accidental release of the virus than of terrorists trying to turn it into a bioweapon. The latter seems to me much more improbable. A very interesting and informed commentary can be found at TWiM (This Week in Microbiology) and TWiV (This Week in Virology), excellent podcasts hosted by Vincent Racaniello. Actually, Racaniello and his guests are quite critical of Fouchier's handling of the case. In particular, they blame Fouchier for his claim that the new mutated flu virus is "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make" (the quote is from a Science News story written by Martin Enserink) - a statement that is not evidence-based, says TWiM. Racaniello and his guests also mention that the 1918 Spanish flu as well as smallpox have their whole sequence freely available and would serve more efficiently as bioweapons.

I think it difficult to form one's own definite opinion. However, I'm convinced that censoring the scientific information is counterproductive in this case.

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