Archive for the ‘flu vaccination’ Category

Influenza H5N1 HPAI research: lots of viewpoints

Friday, March 16th, 2012

When experts disagree, who should we believe?

Shortly after I wrote my post on the dangers of H5N1 HPAI, my weekly copy of JAMA, AKA the Journal of the American Medical Association, arrived containing a commentary titled "International Debate Erupts over Research on Potentially Dangerous Flu Strains." The pros and cons of release of the two groups' research were discussed and the rationale for publishing the methods and details was explained.

One expert in the field had a balanced view. He felt release of the details of the recent research on H5N1 HPAI might be extremely useful to  those who evaluate which strains of influenza are about to pose a real threat to humans and could potentially cause epidemics. Doing so might provide lead time for other scientists who work on vaccines to prevent wider spread of the particular strain of flu.

But in a January, 2012 online discussion of the controversy the head of a university Center for Biosecurity felt the lives of hundreds of millions of people could be at risk if such an engineered virus strain were to be released, even accidentally. He feels that continued research would require the level of biosecurity utilized with other dire agents such as smallpox.

The first infectious disease specialist countered with the concept that H5N1 HPAI wasn't an especially likely pick for those interested in bioterroism. It's certainly not a selective weapon and its use would require considerable expertise.

The second expert noted there had been no data that such a strain of flu would ever develop naturally, outside the lab, and we had to return to the concept of weighing potential harm versus good.

Now the original researchers have stated that the new viral subtype isn't as deadly as feared; it hasn't killed the ferrets being used as laboratory substitutes for humans and has proven to be controllable with vaccines and antiviral medications. Because of ethical limitations it hasn't been tried on human subjects and they don't know whether it even could be spread among humans.

And which of these is the worst?

I think we're treading very close to the edge here. I don't look forward to widespread beneficial effects of complete publication of the ongoing lab research results. And I do fear the possibility of groups who don't care if they kill off a third of everyone, including their own followers. Accidental release of a lab-engineered organism into the human population could also happen, even if unlikely.

Another online article said the work on the mutant form of H5N1 had been performed in BS-3 labs, used for studying agents that can cause serious or lethal disease, but do not ordinarily spread among humans and have existing preventives or treatments.

A GAO 2009 report counted 400 accidents at BS-3 labs in the previous decade. Scientists argued that the H5N1 HPAI studies must be moved to BS-4 labs with one professor stating, "An escape would still produce the worst pandemic in history." Yet between 1978 and 1999, over 1,200 people acquired deadly microbes from BS-4 laboratories, the biosafety-4 level facilities that normally deal with infectious agents that have no known preventive measures or treatment.

Scandia National Laboratory's International Biological Threat Reduction program directed by Ren Salerno has a worldwide ongoing effort to prevent laboratory accidents, but there are varying standards for biosafety and at least 18 BS-4 labs outside of the US as of 2011.

So I'm still worried.


The "sex life" of a virus

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

The double helix

Most of us who are adults (and many who are not) have personal knowledge of human sexual reproduction, the process by which a man and a woman each contribute genetic material that contains DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the chemical basis of new life. DNA is an incredibly long twisted molecule. Its structure is a double helix with two strands composed of a sugar-phosphate backbone linked by four specific chemicals: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G). These are called bases and match up in specific pairs, A always with T and G with C.

DNA has an amazing ability to replicate itself; the strands separate and each becomes the pattern for a duplicate to be constructed. Occasional mistakes are made, but we have a cleanup chemical, DNA polymerase, a kind of automatic spellchecker, that makes corrections.

Our human DNA has about 3 billion pairs of these bases; yours and mine and Cousin Flo's will be 99% identical. The remaining 1% is what makes the difference between an Einstein, a sports hero, a jazz musician and you and me. Our DNA is 98% the same as a chimpanzees and 85% the same as a mouse, but these comparisons clearly understate the importance a single base pair difference can make.

Viral "reproduction" is quite different. Influenza viruses don't have DNA; instead they contain RNA and have to replicate in living cells. Once they are inside one, the process results in many viral "offspring." These eventually leave to infect other cells in the organism and in doing so kill the one they replicated in. RNA (ribonucleic acid) is somewhat like DNA, but has one different base and a slightly different sugar in its "backbone." It's usually found as single strands shorter than those of DNA or, in the case of the flu virus, in seven or eight pieces. It lacks a proofreading enzyme so most of the new influenza virus copies are actually mutants.

Most of these changes, called antigenic drift, are minor. So the flu shot I get every year, which is an educated best guess as to what this years flu virus will be, offers considerable, but not total protection.

flu shots make sense

Sometimes the mutations are more significant; the process is called antigenic shift. That may occur when a host is infected with two different influenza viruses at the same time. The swine flu, for example, contained genes from pigs, humans and birds. When this happens, pandemics may occur.

Influenza is spread in several different ways: an infected person coughs or sneezes and you inhale the aerosolized virus; humans may come into direct contact with bird droppings or nasal secretions; various surfaces may become contaminated (viral particles in mucous may survive several weeks on banknotes).

Modern techniques for producing new flu vaccines rapidly may prevent millions of deaths and steps toward a "universal flu vaccine" are being researched. In the meantime logical precautions and yearly flu shots can save lives.



Viral Diseases: Influenza, Part 2

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Homo Habilis, the first member of the genus Homo

I realized, as I wrote my last post, that I was using medical jargon that might make no sense to most readers. So I want to examine how the influenza virus is described by doctors, specialists in epidemics (AKA epidemiologists) and other scientifically-trained groups.

First of all let's briefly talk about how we classify everything that is alive. There's a complex system called taxonomy which is conventionally used to group separate different  groups of dissimilar and similar organisms. It has seven major layers, or taxa. Humans, for example,  belong to the kingdom Animalia, the phylum Chordata, the class Mammalia, the order Primata, the family Hominidae, the genus Homo and the species Homo sapiens. 

Flu viruses fall into three genuses, and those logically enough are called A, B and C.  The A type has only one species, lives in nature in wild aquatic birds (but can infect other animals), and causes the most severe diseases in humans. Subtypes of flu A can be identified by a variety of laboratory tests that determine which kind of two glycoproteins (complex chemicals that contain both carbohydrate and protein constituents) are found on the surface of the virus.

One of those is called hemagglutinin (H for short) and the other neauraminidase (N). There are 16 H types and 9 Ns; Hs bind the virus to a cell and help it insert its genetic information into that cell. Ns get involved later in the infection and help the virus release its "offspring" from the cells they were produced in.

Laboratory tests can show which H and N are present.  Both are antigens, substances that can cause an immune reaction if taken into your body by one route or another (e.g., breathing them in) and cause your body to produce antibodies, chemicals that are produced to combine with and counter the effects of the antigen. Some important influenza viruses are H1N1 which caused the 1918 Spanish Flu and the 2009 Swine flu, H2N2 (Asian flu of 1957), H3N2 (Hong Kong Flu 1968) and H5N1 (Bird Flu in 2004).

The CDC's short article on types of influenza viruses mentions there are seasonal epidemics nearly every winter in the United States; those are caused by type A or B, not by type C. All of the terrible flu pandemics have been caused by type A flu viruses. The B virus types are normally found only in humans (seals and ferrets are the only other animals that can be infected by flu B).

We get ours every year

Why is type A the killer? It mutates much more rapidly than B, usually by minor changes in the H and N  surface proteins, occasionally by sudden major changes. The first kind of change may alter the antigens you can be exposed to so the antibodies you've developed to fight off a flu infection don't work. That's also why the vaccine you get, which contains two A subtypes and one B strain, may not fully protect you. That's not a reason to skip your flu shot.

The other kind of mutation is more serious and I'll write about it next.