Schism Over H5N1 Avian Flu Research Leaks Out
Sparks flew Thursday night at a New York Academy of Sciences panel discussion about whether or not certain recent research into the H5N1 avian flu virus has created a major biosecurity threat and what, if anything, to do about it.
The research in question comes from the labs of Ron Fouchier at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Both groups say that they have created lab strains of H5N1 avian flu that, for the first time, can easily spread among mammals—in this case, ferrets. Bioterror experts immediately started worrying whether such a strain—after a few more mutations—might spread more easily among other mammals, namely humans, as well.
Of the 583 humans who have so far been hospitalized with confirmed cases of naturally occurring H5N1 flu, 344 have died—leading to a frighteningly high 59 percent case-fatality rate, according to the World Health Organization. Whether that ratio is a true mortality rate—or whether many more people have been infected with H5N1 but have not gotten sick enough to be hospitalized—remains a point of great contention.
The panel discussion, which seemed tense from the start, threatened to turn into a shouting match midway through the evening when one panelist lobbed a verbal attack at another.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), characterized as “propaganda” a scientific paper published last week by co-panelist Peter Palese, a noted flu researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
In case anyone missed the point, Osterholm stared down the table to where Palese was sitting and said point-blank, “You are not in the mainstream of influenzologists.”*
Palese’s paper, published January 25 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, argued that fears about the ferret research had been overblown. The fear, promulgated by the NSABB and others, is that the accidental or intentional release of a highly fatal and contagious bird flu could be devastating for the world’s seven billion people. Alternatively, some scientists argue that publicizing the method and data behind the flu strain would help speed along efforts to prevent its misuse and advance the development of treatments for it whether it is released by terrorists or just evolves in the field on its own.
Later during the discussion Osterholm reiterated that comments he made on the panel should not in any way be taken as an official position by the NSABB.