Flu Research Could Suffer From H5N1 Controversy, Experts Say

Influenza research could suffer as a result of efforts to play down the danger of the avian flu virus in order to win full release of data from two studies that yielded more communicable versions of the pathogen, the Canadian Press on Friday quoted experts as saying (see GSN, March 6).

Bioterrorism concerns prompted the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity last year to call for withholding some data from separate studies conducted at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin (Madison) that boosted the potential for the virus to be passed through the air between ferrets. A panel of experts formed by the World Health Organization backed an existing suspension of the research but urged the release of the full findings after a period of months (see GSN, Feb. 21).

Some specialists have questioned a calculation that nearly six of every 10 human H5N1 flu infections result in death.  The pathogen's publicized lethality could be "orders of magnitude" too high, according to researchers including Peter Palese, a flu expert at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

A significant number of flu specialists have said such assertions could undermine flu-related scientific inquiry, but also voiced support for full circulation of findings from the two bird fly studies.

"If you really believe that the intrinsic lethality of the H5 viruses has been overestimated to such a degree that actually H5 infections are no more serious than regular flu ... why are you spending all this money studying it?" asked John Treanor, a flu vaccine specialist with the University of Rochester in New York.

Ilaria Capua, an avian influenza specialist in Italy, echoed his concerns. "I don't know if the scientists are aware that this could really negatively impact our funding. I don't think that they really can see this" (Helen Branswell, Canadian Press/Global Toronto, March 9).

Meanwhile, an assessment of a World Health Organization meeting last month notes the two projects relied on different genetic alterations to the bird flu virus to increase the agent's communicability, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy reported on Friday.

The efforts were each "proof-of-principle experiments" and "were not designed to elucidate the pathogenicity or degree of transmissibility" of the altered viruses, according to the analysis.

"It was not believed that any purpose would be served by destroying these laboratory modified viruses, given their utility for future research and public health surveillance," the document states (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy release, March 9).

March 12, 2012