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Schism over H5N1 Avian Flu Research Leaks Out

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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electron micrograph of H5N1 virus

Caption: Electron micrograph of H5N1 virus (gold) Image: CDC/Courtesy of Cynthia Goldsmith; Jacqueline Katz; Sherif R. Zaki

NEW YORK—Sparks flew Thursday night at a New York Academy of Sciences panel discussion about whether or not certain recent research into the H5N1 avian flu virus has created a major biosecurity threat and what, if anything, to do about it.

The research in question comes from the labs of Ron Fouchier at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Both groups say that they have created lab strains of H5N1 avian flu that, for the first time, can easily spread among mammals—in this case, ferrets. Bioterror experts immediately started worrying whether such a strain—after a few more mutations—might spread more easily among other mammals, namely humans, as well.

Of the 583 humans who have so far been hospitalized with confirmed cases of naturally occurring H5N1 flu, 344 have died—leading to a frighteningly high 59 percent case-fatality rate, according to the World Health Organization. Whether that ratio is a true mortality rate—or whether many more people have been infected with H5N1 but have not gotten sick enough to be hospitalized—remains a point of great contention.

The panel discussion, which seemed tense from the start, threatened to turn into a shouting match midway through the evening when one panelist lobbed a verbal attack at another.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), characterized as “propaganda” a scientific paper published last week by co-panelist Peter Palese, a noted flu researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

In case anyone missed the point, Osterholm stared down the table to where Palese was sitting and said point-blank, “You are not in the mainstream of influenzologists.”*

Palese’s paper, published January 25 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, argued that fears about the ferret research had been overblown. The fear, promulgated by the NSABB and others, is that the accidental or intentional release of a highly fatal and contagious bird flu could be devastating for the world’s seven billion people. Alternatively, some scientists argue that publicizing the method and data behind the flu strain would help speed along efforts to prevent its misuse and advance the development of treatments for it whether it is released by terrorists or just evolves in the field on its own.

Later during the discussion Osterholm reiterated that  comments he made on the panel should not in any way be taken as an official position by the NSABB.

Palese did not retaliate right away against the ad hominem attack, replying instead about some of the details of his PNAS paper. Later in the discussion, however, Palese zinged back at a throwaway line Osterholm had made about smallpox being less dangerous than influenza. “I would not like to see smallpox come out of a [high-level biosafety] lab, but it would not concern me,” Osterholm had said. “Because we could contain it” by quickly vaccinating everyone who was exposed and containing the virus’s spread. “With influenza, once it’s out, it’s everywhere.”

Scientists behaving badly, in my experience as a journalist, often suggests a lack of either evidence or of consensus in the field. In December the NSABB recommended that specific details be edited out of scientific papers authored by Fouchier and colleagues (submitted to Science) and Kawaoka and colleagues (submitted to Nature). (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group). Ever since, hardly a week has gone by without multiple commentaries from all points of view in various scientific journals about both the NSABB’s recommendation and the underlying research.

Meanwhile, Fouchier’s and Kawaoka’s papers have languished in publishing limbo. Panelists Barbara Jasny (a deputy editor at Science) and Veronique Kiermer (executive editor at Nature) said they are still trying to figure out how to publish a scientific paper without a section on data and methods. Indeed, one panelist wondered whether an experimental paper without data and methods can even properly be called a scientific paper? Others at the event estimated that between 250 and 1,000 people had already seen the full contents of one or the other submitted papers.

After the formal discussion was over, I spoke with panelist Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. Racaniello confirmed my impression that the discussion generated more heat than light, and disagreed with the NSABB member’s main claim: “Osterholm said that all the virologists he knows recommended against publication. Well, all the virologists I know think differently. There’s a lot of scare involved.”**

Stayed tuned for more fireworks.

*Update (7:30 PM, Eastern): Osterholm called me Friday evening after reading the blog post. We had a cordial chat in which he said I had truncated his quote and that what he really said was that Peter Palese was “not in the mainstream of influenzologists when it comes to the risk of H5N1 ever becoming a pandemic strain.”

That is not how I remember it, but we’ll check the recording when it comes out.

Update (8:41 PM, Eastern): Carl Zimmer originally posted the shorter version of Osterholm’s quote as well. Carl has since  checked his tape and concluded that in fact Osterholm said, “You do not represent the mainstream of influenzologists when it comes to this issue on influenza.”

The New York Academy of Sciences has posted a video of its session on dual use research and H5N1 here.

**Update (Februay 26, 2012): For the record, Dr. Osterholm did not use the term “virologists” in his remarks. In the first half of the panel debate Dr. Osterholm said, “We have talked to many of the best infectious disease influenzologists of the world; they agree in my position”  ( 62:14 time marker). He also referred to “senior life scientists” with whom the NSABB consulted before making its recommendation that methodological details be edited from Dr. Fouchier’s and Dr. Kawaoka’s papers on the transmissibility of their lab-created strains of H5N1.

About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. alan6302 7:54 am 02/4/2012

    The genetic bomb ” wormwood ” is predicted to kill .25 billion

    Link to this
  2. 2. alan6302 7:55 am 02/4/2012

    sorry, 2.5 billion

    Link to this
  3. 3. plexed 10:01 am 02/4/2012

    I heard Mr. Osterholm interviewed a while back, and the impression I got was that there was a lot of FUD of the unknown, and the lack of knowledge was on Mr. Osterholm’s part.

    One thing you need to keep an eye out for with people involved with security or bio-terrorism work, is that FUD is what keeps the funding coming.

    Link to this
  4. 4. m 10:56 am 02/4/2012

    Osterholm seems like a reasoning person from this post only i would need to see entire program for at perhaps 1/10th of the information.

    Scientists or people which ever doesnt concern me seem to think its hard to creat something that will wipe out the human race. Quite the contrary the capability to destroy humanity has been around for a century or more in many guises.

    Will we have viruses that are capable of killing a large proportion of the population, absolutely 100%, do viruses evolve naturally, absolutely 100%. This WELL KNOWN.

    This is because they exist already, re-read last paragraph with the word Do as first word.

    Now take into context what is really being talked about, cause this entire subject including the panel was bollocks when it was put together.

    The people in the know, e.g. me, are more interested in the capabilities of containment for the next outbreak. The reason avian flu got so much containment is because they are smart. I mean SMART. The last thing you want is something that can spread fast in the population.

    It also might have something to do with the fact smart people got together behind closed doors and fleshed out the plan. Lets call it PLAN A (movie it if you like).

    Plan A is containment, i mean go overboard, do everything you can to contain it, quarantine, gather, incinerate do whatever you can.

    Plan B destroy, Cant contain you are left with destruction. Trust me when I say and yes this is the first time im public youve probably heard this, destroy city X, Area Y.

    Plan C… To be honest you gentle folk donty want to know.

    Link to this
  5. 5. m 11:01 am 02/4/2012

    Hmm I might let you on to Plan C, though i might be getting a knock at the door later. Certain stock piles of weaponry are kept to remove all trace of life and split every virus and bacteria in target area. devastation like Plan B could only dream of. Expected life remaining on planet is not much I will tel you this much, but even 5% is a lot.

    Link to this
  6. 6. 99JACKSON99 10:54 pm 02/4/2012

    Reeks of fear tactics…brought to you by the makers of Tamaflu. On another note, they speak of containment. We can’t even contain the flow of disease from our southern border. I think it’s time for a mass extinction. The human race has become one big sales pitch and none care of the consequences.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Wicksteed 1:22 pm 02/5/2012

    Hey M-
    I’m not saying I disagree with your post (I don’t know enough) but I want your opinion on something. What do you make of this study which found that hand-washing and wearing masks (combined) can reduce flu rate by 75%?

    How bad can things get if this method works? There are masks that can filter out particles down to a size of 10 nanometers at least that I know of, which should certainly be effective against flu virions since their size is 100 nanometers, right? Only those not in-the-know or who refused to take precautions would get infected. I’m sure 90% of the populace would get the message real soon after the threshold of a million people or so dying.

    Link to this

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