The debate over parallel H5N1 studies

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The debate over parallel H5N1 studies

 

Health Matters

#1  HEADLINE:  Dutch Government OKs publication of Bird Flu study

SUMMARY:  The Dutch government is allowing a Dutch scientist’s paper on a mutant version of the potentially deadly H5N1 bird flu virus to be published in the journal Science. Initially, U.S. experts opposed publication of the studies over fears that the information could be used by terrorists to unleash a deadly flu epidemic.

#2  HEADLINE:  Extended H5N1 Moratorium?

SUMMARY:  A US science official recommends extending the moratorium on bird flu studies as well as other types of risky research. The extension was intended to allow experts around the world to address the biosecurity concerns about the research, as well as to convey to the public the nature and importance of the studies before publication.
 
ANALYSIS:  Dr. Don Donahue, Director, Firestorm Healthcare Response Team

The debate over the parallel H5N1 studies is perhaps unprecedented. Scientific research and the facility to translate findings into practice hinge upon shared information.

Conversely, the ability to create a deadly pathogen in the laboratory is desirable to certain groups, and this capacity could be acquired given sufficient detail.

The idea of using a man-made pathogen is not farfetched.  Before releasing Sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway system, the Aum Shinrikyo cult attempted to release anthrax across the city.  Documents captured from al-Qaeda revealed that group’s desire to acquire biological weapons.  And lest anyone assume this is an obscure threat, remember the five fatalities from the 2001 postal anthrax attacks on the East Coast.

The unthinkable is not beyond possibility.

To fully understand the debate, it is necessary to gain a perspective on the issue.  The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic – a strain of H1N1 – killed an estimated 50 to 130 million people worldwide (out of a global population of 1.86 billion).  This death toll resulted from a fatality rate that has been variously estimated from 1 to 20%.

By comparison, the current H5N1 strain has killed more than half of those infected.  In 1918, about a third of the world’s population was infected.  Projecting forward to today’s nearly 7 billion inhabitants, a 10% fatality rate within a 33% infection rate would leave some 231 million humans dead – an unfathomable toll that rival the impact of the Black Death.

Is it any wonder that some fear release of this information?

The debate, therefore, comes down to two viewpoints: Is it better to sequester potentially deadly information in the hope it remains secret, or to trust in science’s ability to counter emerging threats?

There is the concept of zeitgeist, that an idea’s time comes in a period and place.  It is possible that scientists with evil intent could replicate creating a deadly flu strain or that one could occur in nature.

The need for balance between prudent withholding of potentially dangerous information and hindering advances in medicine is a reflection of today’s issues.  Only time will tell if the eventual decision is the right one.

 

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