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.