The “Doomsday H5N1″ research controversy rages on

According to the article, it’s estimated that at least 1,000 scientists already know the details of this ‘doomsday’ H5N1 research, even though a 60-day moratorium is being observed on further research. And the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity or NSABB (created by GWB in 2004) is stating it wants further research to stop. One of the NSABB’s members, Professor Michael Osterholm, says a release of this influenza virus would be worse than a return of smallpox. Virus experts from around the world are meeting in Geneva starting on February 16 to assess the risks and benefits of continuing the research.

Scientists call for curbs on own research on deadly bird flu virus

A group of the leading virus experts in the US has called for new, permanent restrictions on research in the face of a new genetically engineered flu virus that could kill half the population of the world.

[...] An outbreak of this virus could be worse than the 1918 Spanish flu that killed tens of millions of people, warned Michael Osterholm…

“Frankly, I don’t want a virus out there that, even if it was 20 times less lethal, would still be the worst influenza pandemic in history,” he said.

Professor Osterholm is a member of the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which in December asked the journals Science and Nature not to publish the full research on the virus.

Bird flu, or H5N1, has so far infected 583 people according to World Heath Organisation figures, mostly in South East Asia, and killed 344…

It can currently only be caught by close exposure to infected birds.

However, the new research demonstrated that the virus could be mutated, through genetic manipulation and other methods, into a form that was transmitted between ferrets in airborne droplets from coughs and sneezes.

[...] The NSABB said this posed a huge risk to the world.

A comment on this article caught my eye:

Remember the pathogen is already out in the wild! if it can be mutated in the lab it can mutate naturally. Thus not a matter of “if” only a matter of “when.” Hence the need to continue the research to develop an effective vaccine against the sort of virus H5N1 will be, if it acquires the necessary mechanisms to ramp up its contagious capability. And not necessarily the mechanisms induced by this experiment. There will be others… The latter is something that I suspect the Americans are secretly working on and successfully too. Hence their strange insistance on regulating the research i.e. shutting down lines of inquiry that might nullify their weaponised work.

In case you might dismiss such commentary as typical conspiracy nonsense, here are some facts about prior research on the 1918 influenza virus:

  • 1997-Mar-21 | New York Times - A group of Defense Department researchers found genetic material from the notorious 1918 Spanish flu virus in a formaldehyde-soaked scrap of lung tissue.
  • 2001-Feb-11 | Telegraph - In Great Britain a Professor Oxford tried finding the 1918 influenza virus in exhumed bodies of miners from the Norwegian Arctic community of Longyearbyen — but the bodies weren’t preserved well. Three years later, Oxford planned to exhume local bodies of young people who died in the autumn of 1918 and who had been buried in lead.
  • 2007-Jan-17 | University of Wisconsin-Madison News - Six years later, success! An international team of scientists, led by University of Wisconsin-Madison virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, found a critical clue as to how the virus killed so quickly and efficiently.
  • 2008-Dec-29 | University of Wisconsin-Madison News - One year later: to find the gene or genes that enabled the virus to invade the lungs, Kawaoka and his group blended genetic elements from the 1918 flu virus with those of a currently circulating avian influenza virus and tested the variants on ferrets, an animal that mimics human flu infection. …One exception, however, included a complex of three genes that, acting in concert with another key gene, allowed the virus to efficiently colonize lung cells and make RNA polymerase, a protein necessary for the virus to reproduce.

Here’s what Yoshihiro Kawaoka said about the halt on reasearch in last month’s Nature | 2012-Jan-25To date, H5N1 viruses have not been transmitted between humans. Some experts have argued that it is impossible. But given the potential consequences of a global outbreak, it is crucial to know whether these viruses can ever become transmissible. Work by my group (accepted byNature) and an independent study (accepted by Science) led by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, suggest that H5N1 viruses have the potential to spread between mammals. As the risks of such research and its publication are debated by the community, I argue that we should pursue transmission studies of highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses with urgency.

Dr. Howard Markel, author and a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, calls this censorshipIn this case, censorship is too little, too late. The data generated by one of the research teams was already presented at a conference in Malta in September, where copies of the paper were distributed. But even if the data weren’t already available, the key details could likely be inferred from other information that is already available. I recently spoke with several prominent influenza scientists, all of whom agreed that, based on the knowledge that certain mutations can make H5N1 highly transmissible in ferrets, they could consult previously published literature and probably figure out what those mutations are… we have reason to be concerned about any recommendations the federal government makes to censor science. 

Image above: (NIBSC/SPL) H5N1 avian influenza virus particles.