Bird flu paper that raised bioterrorism fears published

CHICAGO Wed May 2, 2012 2:24pm EDT

Related Topics

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The journal Nature has published the first of two controversial papers about laboratory-enhanced versions of the deadly bird flu virus that initially sparked fears among U.S. biosecurity experts that it could be used as a recipe for a bioterrorism weapon.

The publication of the paper by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on Wednesday follows months of acrimonious debate that pitted the need for science to be free of censorship against the obligation to protect the public from a potentially devastating flu pandemic.

Bird flu is lethal in people and spreads among those who are in close contact with infected birds, but so far, the virus known as H5N1 has not had the ability to pass easily among humans through sneezing and coughing, and some scientists had begun to doubt that that was possible.

The studies by Kawaoka and Dr. Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical College in the Netherlands changed that view by proving that with a few genetic mutations, the virus could pass easily among ferrets, which are used as a close approximation of how a virus might behave in people.

"There are people who say that bird flu has been around for 16, 17 years and never attained human transmissibility and never will," said Malik Peiris, virology professor at the University of Hong Kong.

"What this paper shows is that it certainly can. That is an important public health message, we have to take H5N1 seriously. It doesn't mean it will become a pandemic, but it can," said Peiris, who wrote a commentary accompanying Kawaoka's paper in Nature.

The impending publication of the two papers last December prompted the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to recommend that sensitive information be redacted, a first for the group which was formed after a series of anthrax attacks in the United States in 2001.

The group advises the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies about "dual use" research that could serve public health but also be a potential bioterrorism threat.

WEIGHING THE RISKS

The National Institutes of Health, which funded some of the research, agreed with the panel's assessment and made non-binding recommendations to Nature and Science, the journal that planned to publish Fouchier's study, to withhold key elements of the work.

But after a series of meetings involving flu experts and officials at the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health in the United States, the NSABB reversed its decision.

The group voted unanimously to support publication of the paper by Kawaoka, considered the least controversial of the two.

And it voted 12-6 in favor of publishing a study from Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, but did not explain the concerns among some panel members about that research. Science has not given a specific date for its publication.

Kawaoka said in an email he believed that in face-to-face meetings with members of the NSABB in March, he was able to explain in greater detail the full implications of his experiments and win the panel's support.

Kawaoka's team developed a hybrid virus by taking the hemagglutinin gene from the H5N1 virus and combining it with the pandemic strain of the 2009 H1N1 swine flu virus.

Then, by adding four other gene mutations, plus some spontaneous changes that occurred in the ferrets, the virus became transmissible among ferrets - the best model scientists have for predicting whether a flu virus can be transmitted among humans, Peiris said.

"But it doesn't necessarily mean that just because this virus transmitted in ferrets, it will 100 percent transmit in humans, but it's as close as we can get. It lost a lot of its virulence in ferrets, maybe because of the H1N1 backbone," Peiris said.

Kawaoka said his manuscript has been updated to provide more information about the benefits of these findings, particularly the risk posed by currently circulating viruses that already have one of these mutations.

"In addition, we provided more details about the biosafety and biosecurity measures in place to conduct these experiments," Kawaoka said.

Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and a member of NSABB, said from his own perspective, he still believes there is risk in publishing information on how to increase the transmissibility of the bird flu virus, but publishing the study also gives scientists around the world a better idea of what to watch for in viruses already circulating.

Knowing that bird flu has the potential to jump more easily from human to human may now encourage governments to do a better job of tracking this potential threat.

"We feel the risk is still there, but the benefits now outweigh the risks," he said.

(Additional reporting by Sharon Begley in New York and Ee Lyn Tan in Hong Kong; Editing by Eric Beech)

FILED UNDER:
We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (2)
shahsameer wrote:
The researchers found that the virus was able to spread among ferrets in different cages after just four mutations. While this mutated version of the virus was not as deadly, it provided valuable insight into the mechanisms and implications of mutation. http://bit.ly/JFA6do

May 03, 2012 2:10pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
umojaresearch wrote:
Any government, or scientists involved with the creation and spread of any disease is wrong, not to mention irresponsible to humanity and nature. This Bird Flu is no exception.

The fact Western Governments have created and spread disease is nothing new. A number of documents verify the creation of AIDS and various types of Cancer, which were intentionally spread through supposed Preventative Medical Injection programs.

A serious question to be considered with this Bird Flu is, was this man-made disease responsible for the various outbreaks recently in the World?

In 1972 the World Health Organization (WHO), Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Volume 47, number 3, page 259 of their Memoranda, we find that in 1972 a plan was being implemented by the WHO to test in a systematic evaluation the effects of viruses on immune functions in human subjects. This is the same year the U.S. Government was exposed of trying to infect African Americans with disease from 1932-1972, better know as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

The Fogerty International Center Proceedings, No. 3, May-June 1972, reports the proceedings of a workshop held at the National Institute of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, July 27-30, 1970. One of the conference committees for the conference was sponsored by the John E. Forgerty International Center For Advanced Study In The Health Sciences and the World Health Organization, suggest at page 1102:
“…In relation to the immune response, a number of useful experimental approaches can be visualized. One would be a study of the relationship of HL-A type to the immune response, both humoral and cellular, to well defined bacteria and viral antigens during preventive vaccinations. This would be particularly informative when applied to sibships.” (Sibships being children of the same parents.)

The Seventh National Cancer Conference proceedings, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, Inc., and the United States National Cancer Institute, published by the J.B, Lippencott Company, Philadelphia and Toronto, 1972, in a report on epidemiology by John Higginson M.D., Director of the International Agency for Research On Cancer, Dr. Higginson suggest at page 680:
“…The complex biology of cancer makes it essential to approach observational studies in man with the same technical sophistication that characterizes animal experimentation.”
It should be obvious scientists intended to inject known viruses into human beings and the inoculation of viable (living) diseases with its related Retro-Viruses should be an alarming indication of the irresponsible acts against mankind by doctors and scientists since the time of Hitler.

So to intentionally spread any disease in man or nature is extremely irresponsible, yet governments are performing these acts all the time. This idea of defensive studies being done, especially to wild animals is just another smoke screen to the dangers we face when governments and scientists abuse science for the possible destruction of other cultures and maybe progress in agriculture.

Ref:
1.A Higher Form Of Killing, The Secret History of Chemical and Biological Warfare, Robert Harris, Jeremy Paxman
2.Bulletin of The World Health Organization, Vol.47, No.3 pp. 275-438 and Recommendations in the MEMORANDA pp. 259
3.AIDS Was Created For Minority Population Control” by John Graverholtz M.D., July-August 1989, in the 21st Century Science and Technology
4.”Bad Blood” by James Jones
5.”Ethnic Weapons”, by Carl A. Larson, Military Review, Professional Journal of the U.S. Army Vol. 1 #11, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Nov. 1970
6.The Fogerty International Center Proceedings, No. 3, May-June 1972, reports the proceedings of a workshop held at the National Institute of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, July 27-30, 1970 (page 1102)
7.The Seventh National Cancer Conference proceedings, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, Inc., and the United States National Cancer Institute, published by the J.B, Lippencott Company,

May 04, 2012 7:49pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.