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New bird flu deaths, as influenza research debate continues

Vietnam and Cambodia confirmed new human deaths from bird flu this week. 

The two victims, an 18-year-old Vietnamese man and a two-year-old Cambodian boy, caught the lethal virus, also known as H5N1, from poultry -- not from contact with infected people, according to the Associated Press.

But the news, along with announcements from the World Health Organization that Egypt and Indonesia also have reported new H5N1 cases, is a reminder of recent worries that bird flu may be able to mutate so that it is able to pass from human to human through the air, in the droplets produced by an infected person’s cough or a sneeze.

To that end, on Thursday the journal Science released a set of articles looking once again at December’s controversy over two laboratories that created strains of the virus that transmitted easily between ferrets, a mammal that responds to influenza much as people do.

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After the scientists in the Netherlands and in Wisconsin made plans to publish their work in the journals Science and Nature, a U.S. government advisory board asked the journals to withhold details that might allow terrorists or others with bad intentions to re-create the transmissible and highly lethal strains.  The journals agreed -- as long as officials agreed to come up with a system to make sure scientists and public health workers who need access to the research could get it. 

Nature published a set of brief responses to the decision earlier this week.  Science’s offerings are lengthier, and cover some of the same ground.  Erasmus Medical Center researcher Ron Fouchier and colleagues, authors of the paper that was to have been published in Science, argued that the work should be published in full -- as did University of Maryland flu researcher Daniel R. Perez, who called the studies “a wake up call,” and said it was likely that the engineered viruses could emerge on their own in the wild.

Infectious disease experts Michael T. Osterholm (who is a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, or NSABB, which recommended the limits on publication) and Donald A. Henderson, on the other hand, wrote that releasing the research details “poses far more risk than any good that might occur.”

In another essay, John D. Kraemer and Lawrence O. Gostin of the Georgetown University Law Center argue that setting up better oversight for research that could be dangerous in the wrong hands would be preferable to writing laws that restrict access to the information such science produces.

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