Ruffled Feathers: A Controversy Over Research on “Bird Flu”

Written by Robert Lee

A debate has been raging the past few months over the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity’s (NSABB) unexpected request in December for two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science, to omit major details from soon to be published papers on the H5N1 influenza virus, commonly known as “bird flu.” This controversy encapsulates the continuing battle between short-term priorities of public health safety vs. the long term priorities of preparedness. The NSABB’s request arose due to concerns that details of studies—undertaken by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam—could be used by terrorist groups to weaponize the virus. NSABB’s decision has ignited a fierce debate among researchers and scientists not only over whether the organization’s request was justified, but over whether the research should have been undertaken in the first place. What kind of research could have set off such polarization?

To understand, let us start with a basic rundown of bird flu: H5N1 is endemic and panzootic in many bird species, affecting and killing large numbers over vast areas. According to data released on Feb 8th by the World Health Organization, H5N1 had a fatality rate of 59% in humans, killing a staggering 345 of the 584 people reported infected since 2003. While there are no highly effective treatments for H5N1, studies suggest that oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) help hamper the spread of the virus.

Fortunately, it is difficult for avian hosts to infect humans—and those people who are infected cannot easily transmit the virus to others. But what would a H5N1 strain that could spread easily between humans look like? What sorts of genetic mutations would grant H5N1 human transmissibility? In an attempt to answer those questions, Dr. Kawaoka and Dr. Fouchier led independent teams that successfully engineered a strain of the virus that was transmitted through the air between ferrets—considered the best models for studying flu transmission in humans.

The NSABB and others have expressed grave concern over the experiments. At the heart of these objections lies dwindling confidence in our ability to control new pathogens. The organization argues that bioterrorists could access the published details of the studies and create a highly transmissible human strain. Others fear that insufficient security and/or safety measures could lead to the virus being leaked or stolen. A New York Times editorial titled, “An Engineered Doomsday,” called for the virus to be stored in the highest security government laboratories or destroyed entirely. A former staff writer at Scientific American summed up his view in a blog titled, “Let’s Ban Research That Makes the Bird-Flu Virus and Other Pathogens Deadlier.”

Supporters have defended the research on two main points, as outlined in this Washington Post opinion. First, knowing genetic mutations that make H5N1 more transmissible could help scientists identify, detect, and track emerging and potentially dangerous viruses. This in turn means public health officials can take appropriate countermeasures in advance of an epidemic. Second, continued free flow of information would accelerate efforts at developing drugs and vaccines to counter epidemics, should they occur. Vincent R. Racaniello, who leads the popular Virology Blog, made a scathing rebuttal to the aforementioned New York Times editorial, noting that the official fatality rate is too high, since many nonlethal infections are not counted in the figures under the World Health Organization’s strict definitions of infection. An open letter to the NSABB argued that current safety procedures are sufficient and fears overblown, remarking that there was no evidence the engineered viruses would be transmissible or virulent in humans.

On January 20th, Nature published a letter from both Dr. Fouchier and Dr. Kawaoka announcing their decision to stop all related research for 60 days to allow governments and organizations to “find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work.” The NSABB issued their own letter explaining their justifications and called for a moratorium on the dissemination of related research “until consensus is reached on the balance that must be struck between academic freedom and protecting the greater good of humankind from potential danger.”

It is the author’s opinion that while the NSABB’s concerns are well-placed, limiting what researchers can publish is in the end detrimental to the pursuit of science. As Dr. Peter Palese (whose team reconstructed the infamous 1918 “Spanish Flu” virus in 2005) remarked in a column in Nature, “who will want to enter a field in which you can't publish your most scientifically interesting results?” Dr. Palese’s work (which also garnered NSABB concern but was allowed to be published in full) contributed to a surge of interest and research in the 1918 flu, leading to important discoveries that have made us better prepared in the case of its return. By hindering the process of scientific exchange, the NSABB risks endangering the public safety they are entrusted to defend.

blog comments powered by Disqus