Background on avian flu
Avian flu (bird flu) is a highly contagious virus that infects a wide variety of birds, causing a varying state of disease. Symptoms observed in infected birds are similar to those caused by influenza in humans. There are over 26 types of avian flu virus, but the deadliest strain to date is the infamous H5N1. According to WHO, there have been 583 recorded cases of H5N1 infection in humans, occurring in countries such as Turkey, Vietnam and China, which have led to a total of 334 deaths; over half of all infected. Controversy has arisen among scientific groups as to whether research demonstrating the mutations that cause this deadly virus to infect mammals should be published for everyone to access. With headlines such as ‘Bird flu terrorism over study’s publication’ hitting the media, the impact of this story that will shape the future of engineered virus research.
At the end of last year, two research papers were submitted to the journals Nature and Science. The first paper was a study conducted by Ron Fouchier and his team at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. In their study, the team passed a mutant H5N1 virus, with three mutations, two in the HA surface protein and one in the polymerase enzyme, known to allow bird flu to infect mammals, through ferrets. The virus strain killed the ferrets subjected to the virus, but the virus did not transmit between ferrets in different cages. Then, the team passed the virus from the already infected ferrets through healthy ferrets 10 times and the virus picked up new different mutations. After the 10th passage, the virus spread to ferrets in separate cages through aerosol transmission and killed them. Two new mutations were observed in all viruses in the dead ferrets, which added to the three incorporated mutations disclosed five key mutations. Fouchier concluded therefore that upon passage, the virus had collected mutations that enabled the virus to spread through ferrets, but are they the only mammals the virus could spread to?
Following recommendations from the USA’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), the authors were asked to redact key details of the papers, The board released a statement on 20th December stating that although research on the H5N1 strain has public heath benefits, it also has ‘ potential to be misused for harmful purposes’. Therefore, they recommended the publication of the papers with the deletion of methodology, so that the research could not be repeated, but anyone including other researchers; this did not go down with the science community.
The two journals ‘grudgingly’ agreed to publish redacted versions without details of methods or mutations, despite opinions that for the best interest of public health the information needed to remain accessible. In return however, the Government promised to develop and implement a system by which scientists could access the papers, however, information on how and who will be allowed access was not provided.
Editor-in-chief of Science Bruce Alberts said ‘many scientists within the influenza community have a bona fide need to know the details of this research in order to protect the public, especially if they currently are working with related strains of the virus’.
Should the studies have been conducted?
However, controversy has arisen over whether the research should have been conducted in the first place. On the one hand, the research could lead to screening systems for detected strains of the virus, which aim to identify key mutations which make the virus transmissible. The studies could also lead to increased research and the development of vaccines for the flu, similar to what was achieved for swine flu.
On the other hand, certain opinions believe that the laboraories who conduced the experiments and engineered the viruses could have put the public at risk of danger. Not only becuase the virus could have leaked out from the lab, infecting susceptibles which could have lead to a pandemic, but because the study demonstrates to anyone how the deadly virus could be made, which could be used as a weapon. The lab-created version, the board warned, represented an “extremely serious global public health threat”. These points alone demonstrate the seriousness of this work.
At the end of December, WHO said limiting access to the research cannot be achieved as it would be impossible to decide who should get access and who shouldn’t. WHO also said that it would be impossible to stop publication. A meeting regarding the future of the studies was planned for February and in the meantime a 60-day ban on all research on H5N1 was allowed; this was agreed upon by the two journals.
Following the meeting in February, this system still has not been devised. In fact, WHO have no concluded that it could take years to develop. Instead following the meeting WHO advised the studies should be published in full, but not immediately.
On the 29th February, it was announced that the NSABB were to be given redacted versions of the two papers, for a second round of review. At the present time, no date has been given for this.
A final point I consider worth some thought is that it with all the media coverage, it seems as though little emphasis has been placed on the benefit of engineering the virus; to prevent an H5N1 pandemic. Surely now this should be the priority. For now the future is uncertain for the “two most famous unpublished manuscripts in history”.