Controversial flu study released after biosecurity debate
May 2nd, 2012
04:23 PM ET

Controversial flu study released after biosecurity debate

The first of two controversial studies about  a mutated form of the potentially lethal H5N1 bird flu virus was finally published Wednesday after months of debate over whether release of the research could pose a biosecurity threat.

The journal Nature published the study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka. Similar research led by Dutch researcher Ron Fouchier at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam has yet to be published in its entirety in the journal Science.

Both studies found that with a few genetic alternations, this bird flu virus can be much more easily transmitted. Six months ago the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) asked both journals not to publish essential data because they feared it could be misused and turned into a biological weapon.  Scientists in favor of publication argued that the data was important for flu surveillance and public health preparedness.

"This study has significant public health benefits and contributes to our understanding of this important pathogen,” said Yoshihiro Kawaoka, the author of the Nature study and a flu researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in a released statement. “By identifying mutations that facilitate transmission among mammals, those whose job it is to monitor viruses circulating in nature can look for these mutations so measures can be taken to effectively protect human health."

H5N1 is a virus that has caused major concern, due to high global death rates associated with it.  Since 2003, the virus has infected at least 600 people, mostly in Asia, and killed more than half of the people infected.  The virus has spread to people who are in close proximity to birds, but it hasn't spread easily human-to-human.

But researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and another team from the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands each created a mutated version of the H5N1 virus that can more easily transmitted amongst mammals.  They tested the mutated virus on ferrets, which closely mimic the human response to the flu.

The 23-member NSABB had expressed that revealing such detailed results could "represent(s) a grave concern for global biosecurity, biosafety, and public health.”

But the World Health Organization recommended that the two studies be published in their full form.  By April, the U.S. government reversed its position with new information and revisions.  The board said the research could help in fighting a possible future outbreak.  It recommended the researchers' findings be published without "methods or details" that could be used by terrorists to produce a biological weapon.

Flu viruses constantly mutate in nature.  The virus engineered in Kawaoka's lab was of low virulence, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"H5N1 viruses remain a significant threat for humans as a potential pandemic flu strain. We have found that relatively few mutations enable this virus to transmit in mammals. These same mutations have the potential to occur in nature," said Kawaoka in the university’s press release.

The research also showed that the mutant virus could be controlled by a H5N1 vaccine and the drug, Tamiflu.  The study was funded partly by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

soundoff (48 Responses)
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    This fear of weaponization of everything has these scare nuts holding back the advancement of mankind as they profit off the information for themselves and the business of government funded censorship.

    May 3, 2012 at 09:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. 1byrd

    The Economist had an interesting article on this. It says that making the research work public actually reduces the opportunity for bio-terrorism because it allows a wider range of medical experts to work on developing vaccines. Hmmmm....

    May 3, 2012 at 09:45 | Report abuse | Reply
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    these epidemic prntieveon bioscientists will be the most powerful people in human history . 1 virus could wipe out the entire human population . if anyone can design this virus synthetically it would be these people

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