bird flu


The never-ending threat of pandemic flu | 

bird flu headline
Flickr, hugovk

The world’s attention seems to be wandering away from the threat of pandemic flu, though not because of diminished coverage.

NPR Officials prepare for another flu pandemic – just in case

Canadian Press Too soon to declare bird flu under control

Intn’l Business Times Bird flu strain H7N9 in China not yet a pandemic, but …

The stories lately seem like an attempt to counteract what one fellow, writing in the London Review of Books (oddly?), referred to as Pandemic fatigue.

When the latest bird flu surfaced in China with reports of an entirely new strain of avian influenza, many health officials as well as medical reporters sprang into action and sounded the alert.

Because of the nature of this virus, many warned this could mutate into a highly dangerous form that can pass from person-to-person. But of course, the virus may also fail to do this. It may, like many flu viruses, fail to jump species or go ahead and jump but then mutate into a milder form. We don’t know how to predict what flu will do. We also, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, don’t know what we don’t know.

There are hundreds of different flu viruses out there in circulation and they constantly mutate. Seasonal flu already kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide every year. We could call this our ‘annual flu pandemic’ but that would rob the word of its emotional power.

It’s perhaps worth noting that there is a natural tendency that favors the worrying stories beyond just trying to prompt efforts aimed at disease prevention and preparation. The news media loves scare stories and a human flu pandemic with a more deadly virus is truly scary. In the meantime, we can worry about pig flu as well as bird flu. There might be some budgetary motives, the desire by those in public health to use the scare to make the case for better funding.

These are all, or well most of them, legitimate concerns and efforts aimed at preparing us for the big one. But the question is if these scares fail to explode into a large-scale pandemic, will the public — and policy makers — be better prepared or somehow inoculated against taking the threat seriously in the future?

Media eagerly covers bird flu outbreak in China | 

bird flu headline
Flickr, hugovk

I don’t mean to make light of the possibility that a handful of human deaths in China apparently caused by a new strain of bird flu could produce a global flu pandemic. But there is this tendency in the media — of which I am a party to — to get a bit too excited about these bird flu outbreaks.

NY Times – China Escalates Response to Bird Flu Outbreak

Outbreak! Escalation! We like words like that in our headlines.

Now, there is theoretical justification for concern – because theoretically a new bird flu virus could mutate into a human flu that we have little immunity against. You’ve seen the movie, right? Still, it’s important to emphasize that this hasn’t happened yet, probably won’t and even if it does become something humans can pass on to each other, most flu viruses tend to become weaker the more they spread. Continue reading

Bird flu flap resolved, sort of | 

Flickr, gainesp2003

The scientific community, in the end, agreed to publish controversial bird flu virus studies despite the arguments of those who favored keeping the research secret because of the risk some might use it to make a super bad virus.

At stake in this cockfight, as I wrote earlier, was the fundamental principle in science of open and transparent exchange of information pitted against the desire to reduce risk and the hypothetical threat of misuse.

The decision to publish is big news today and variously characterized:

New York Times Bird Flu Paper is Published After Debate

LA Times (via Herald) Scientists explain how they created easily spread virus

Wall Street Journal Study shows bird flu virus’ pandemic potential

Chronicle Higher Ed Study points the way how to stop, not start, pandemic

Yeah, I think that last headline should be the primary take-away here. The real risk here is that the H5N1 bird flu virus will naturally mutate into a form that is easily spread to humans (Note: Contrary to some news reports, the research virus is still not that easily spread in mammals).

Keeping important research secret because of possible misuse also poses a risk — it hamstrings the scientific community’s ability to make progress based on the work of others. The whole point of publication is to share knowledge. Below is an op-ed in Nature by a bio-weapons expert that makes the case for why publishing these studies was the right decision.

Nature Do Not Censor Science in the Name of Security. Says author Tim Trevan:

“Almost all biological knowledge can be either misused or applied for good…. Censorship of the H5N1 papers would not have kept the genie in the bottle. Suppressing such papers or limiting access to their findings might even encourage proliferation by drawing attention to the risks and by provoking those researchers denied access to the results to seek to replicate them.”

Health experts say controversial bird flu research should be published | 

Flickr, 4BlueEyes

A blue-ribbon panel at the World Health Organization has decided that two controversial bird flu studies should go forward and be published in full.

Just not yet — not until the public has been inoculated against premature anxiety and hysteria. Here’s WHO’s press release on the meeting.

“The group felt that one of the things that would be important to do is to increase public awareness first,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO director general for health and environmental security.

“There are lots of concerns about whether this (research) has created a super virus, whether it might escape from laboratories,” Fukuda said.He said the panel recommended full publication and ongoing similar studies on the bird flu virus, H5N1, but not until the public is better educated about the true risks and benefits of the science.

“So that there isn’t a new wave of anxiety created by the manuscripts coming out,” Fukuda said.

Meanwhile, the editor of the journal Science, Bruce Alberts, said today he intends to publish the bird flu study they have in hand if the scientific community can’t agree on a workable alternative that adequately balances the need for free and open exchange of information against biosecurity concerns. Alberts told the BBC:

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver, he said: “Our position is that, in the absence of any mechanism to get the information to those scientists and health officials who need to know and need to protect their populations and to design new treatments and vaccines, our default position is that we have to publish in compete form.”


Bird flu cockfight: Secrecy vs Science | 

Flickr, 4BlueEyes

There’s a heated scientific debate going on right now between those who fear the terrorist use of chickens versus those who fear the slippery slope of secrecy in science.

Starting on Thursday, a blue-ribbon panel of invited experts will meet behind closed doors at the World Health Organization to discuss whether or not two controversial experiments done on the avian influenza (bird flu) virus H5N1 should be published.

Chickens are right now the primary means by which bird flu gets transmitted. The concern is that terrorists will use it against humans.

“Biology has never done this before,” said Dr. Samuel Miller, head of the NIH’s Northwest Regional Center for BioDefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases in Seattle.

This could be a critical moment for the biological sciences, Miller said, which has — like most of science — operated according to the fundamental tenet of the free exchange of information, transparency of methods and open, public debate as to the findings.


Samuel Miller, director UW Center on Biodefense

“What we are talking about here is really a fundamental change, about basically classifying a portion of biological research,” he said. Much of the physics community was forced into secrecy during World War II, Miller said, but nothing like this has ever been done for biology.

“I think it’s going to be difficult to get consensus on this,” he said.

The debate stems from two teams of researchers which, reportedly, have made the bird flu virus more easy to transmit in mammals. The virus in nature rarely infects humans but when it does can be very deadly. Continue reading

Timeline on the bird flu virus research debate | 

One of Humanosphere’s contributors and a leading global health blogger, Jaclyn Schiff, has prepared this excellent — and beautiful — timeline of news reports on the H5N1 research debate:

Five reasons not to panic about the bird flu experiments | 

Flickr, hugovk

News analysis

The scientific community is in serious kerfuffle right now about whether or not to publish the details of certain bird flu virus experiments.

Angry words are flying back and forth between experts – much like the proverbial behavior of chickens with their heads cut off.

One commentator for Scientific American has even suggested banning all such research.

It’s all a bit much, and probably not good for science or for our global health. I would like to offer five reasons not to panic, but first the background:

The fear among some experts is that terrorists could repeat the experiments, in which genetically altered bird flu viruses, H5N1, were made more easy to transmit in mammals, presumably also in humans.

Based on this, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has suggested censoring some of the research — redacting key portions of it. A few weeks ago, the scientific community agreed to a temporary moratorium on this research while the issues got hashed out.

There are persuasive arguments on both sides of this debate weighing the goal of reducing risk vs. the need for open exchange of knowledge.

But in some ways it’s not a fair fight. Continue reading

To publish and perish? Scientists create scary new flu bug | 

Flickr, Y

The U.S. government is opposing full publication by scientists of their methods used to create a mutant form of bird influenza based on the fear it could be used by terrorists to launch a deadly pandemic.

As reasonable as this may sound, many see the government’s position as unworkable and inappropriate.

As Nature magazine and GlobalPost report, some say the researchers should not be allowed to publish their findings because such knowledge would be dangerous in the wrong hands.

On Friday, a compromise position was floated — a three-month hold on publishing while the scientific community figures out how to balance the fundamental need for free and open exchange of ideas with the desire to minimize the potential risk of misuse of scientific information to do harm.

The mutant strain of flu variant H5N1 was created as part of ongoing research to prepare for a major pandemic. As Nature reports:

The mutant strains were not born out of a reckless desire to push the boundaries of high-risk science, but to gain a better understanding of the potential for avian H5N1 to mutate into a form that can spread easily in humans through coughing or sneezing.

That seems prudent enough, but some outside the scientific community are raising the alarm over plans to publish the findings in scientific journals. As The Independent reported:

A deadly strain of bird flu with the potential to infect and kill millions of people has been created in a laboratory by European scientists – who now want to publish full details of how they did it.

The discovery has prompted fears within the US Government that the knowledge will fall into the hands of terrorists wanting to use it as a bio-weapon of mass destruction.

There is reason for caution and precautions have already being taken, beginning with the standard laboratory containment measures. But this is also perhaps evidence why we need to better educate people — apparently including many folks in positions of great power — on statistics and relative risk. Continue reading