Posts Tagged ‘H5N1 HPAI virus’

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.


Dangerous research on influenza H5N1, the "bird flu"

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

This "chicken" is safe to handle

I just looked at the World Health Organization's (WHO) most recent statistics on human cases of avian influenza H5N1, the dreaded bird flu. These cover the period from 2003 through March 10, 2012 and report 596 total cases and 350 deaths. The counties with the great numbers of cases are Indonesia, Egypt and Vietnam and I didn't see any reports of bird flu infections in the Western Hemisphere...yet.

That's a relatively tiny number of cases, but an incredibly high percentage of deaths, nearly 60% of those infected. But influenza epidemics and pandemics have been a common occurrence in the last century. So what's the difference between our seasonal flu, the pandemics and this new flu?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of WHO has published the first three chapters (of nine) of an online primer on avian influenza. It seemed a good place for me to start.

The first issue is how easily a new flu virus passes from animals  to humans (the usual hosts are birds, typically ducks and, secondarily, chickens, especially if flocks are raised in proximity to each other and the ducks are "free range") and then from one person to another. The second is how deadly the particular influenza virus is.

Up until now those infected with the relatively new H5N1 subtype, sometimes called H5N1 HPAI, have had direct or at least indirect contact with infected birds. The HPAI is the acronym for "Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza," but in this case highly pathogenic, which translates into very likely to cause disease, mostly refers to birds. Unlike seasonal flu, there's been (thus far) absolutely no documented human-to-human spread of the virus.

The 1918 Spanish flu infected 1/3 of everyone alive and killed at least 20 million. My math says that's roughly 4%, but 3% is the usual quoted figure. Seasonal flu kills less than 0.1% of those infected. So this flu, if it does reach a human, is terrible.

These experiment may prove deadly

Recently there has been an enormous flap about the work done in two laboratories. I had heard about the issue, but hadn't read the details until my monthly copy of On Wisconsin arrived and I realized one of the labs was in Madison. CNN has an online review of the problem. The researchers wondered why this deadly flu variety hasn't spread from person to person, so they created a mutated form that could be easily transmitted from one mammal to another using ferrets as their test animal.

Then the excrement collided with the rotating blades. Detailed papers were about to be published in prominent, widely read journals, Nature and Science. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity temporarily stopped the process, saying the papers should be published without methods or details to stop terrorists from making their own highly lethal and easily spread virus strains.

Think about it; if this virus subtype gets released it could potentially infect a third or perhaps all of all of us now alive and kill 60% of those whom it strikes. We have a world population of roughly 7 billion now, so that's somewhere between 1.4 and 4.2 billion deaths.

Yet many in the scientist community seems to think all the details of the research should be given to those responsible groups that need help with H5N1 HPAI.

I'm worried.