Studies on the H5N1 super virus are published

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Studies on human pathogenic avian influenza are published

The studies on human pathogenic avian influenza viruses (H5N1 viruses) grown in the laboratory, initially kept under wraps for fear of bioterrorism, are now being published. After the authors have revised their studies, there is nothing to be said against publication, according to the assessment of the US Government's Biosafety Advisory Board (NSABB), which had previously spoken out against publication.

For months, the dispute over how to deal with the explosive results from the studies of Ron Fouchier, professor at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, professor at the US University of Wisconsin. Out of consideration for the objections of the NSABB, the scientific journals "Science" and "Nature" initially decided not to publish them, but with considerable protest. Most recently, around two months ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for a comprehensive publication of the research results on mutated avian influenza, which was also called the super virus. Fouchier and Kawaoka had mutated the H5N1 virus in two independent studies, which meant that avian flu could be transmitted from person to person like a common influenza by droplet infection.

Cultivation of superviruses in the laboratory should clarify pandemic risk With the cultivation of the human pathogenic avian flu virus in the laboratory, the researchers wanted to investigate the risk of a pandemic caused by avian flu. The result is clear: a few mutations of the pathogens are sufficient so that they can be transmitted from person to person. Here, however, the NSABB saw a considerable risk of misusing the study results for the purposes of bioterrorism and therefore recommended that they not be published in full or that the data be published only in a censored version. The editors of the trade magazines "Science" and "Nature" protested massively, but, according to the guidelines of the NSABB, held back on publication for the time being. There were also major criticisms of the US agency's actions from other directions. Especially since most scientists believe that the data are also suitable for assessing the risks of an avian pandemic and preparing for possible mutations in the H5N1 virus. A specially convened panel of experts from the WHO, which also included the study authors and the chief editors of "Science" and "Nature", came to the conclusion that the reprint of a censored version would not be appropriate and that the data should be published in full. The benefits clearly outweigh the risks, according to the WHO expert panel. Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s top health security advisor, emphasized that the development of the human-borne H5N1 virus clearly showed “how important it is to continue researching this virus.”

Extensive publication of the studies on the mutated avian flu virus required So that other researchers can use the results of Fouchier and Kawaoka, a comprehensive publication is required. The NSABB has apparently recognized this in the meantime and is currently rowing back massively. Fouchier and Kawaoka have revised their study manuscripts and “the data described no longer seem to be capable of being misused in such a way that public health or national security is at risk,” according to the current position of the NSABB. What changes the researchers have made to their manuscripts remains unknown. The evidence that the NSABB allegedly reveals that knowledge of certain mutations in the virus can even be helpful in the international monitoring of infectious diseases and health risks is rather questionable. Especially since there can be no talk of “new evidence” because the advantages of such basic research have been known for a long time. That NSABB of all times now emphasizes that “Global cooperation, especially in preparation for an influenza pandemic, is based on free access on information, "seems like a bad joke. The same authority had recently fought to keep the data confidential. It is difficult to say which motives are behind the NSABB's approach. In the beginning, the agency may have simply been guided by the fear of terror, which is widespread in the United States, and has overshot its target.

Questionable confidentiality of research results Attempting to keep the study results on the mutated bird flu virus secret seemed questionable from the start, not least because the US government had co-financed the development of the new highly contagious virus. A complete publication of the data is also required to assess the risk of a pandemic caused by mutant avian influenza (H5N1) and to enable the development of new treatment options, according to the WHO position. If there is concern that the pathogen grown in the laboratory will be used as a biological weapon, the mutated virus should not have been bred, let alone financed with public funds. At first glance, the fear of an accidental release of the mutant pathogen through an accident also seems justified. But those who have this concern should not invest in the development of such super viruses. The NSABB's reasoning to keep the study results secret was extremely controversial not only among experts.

US Agency Approves Publication of Study Results Regarding the studies on the risks of mutation in avian influenza, the NSABB finally gave in and approved publication. After massive criticism of its previous approach by the editorial offices of "Science" and "Nature", the WHO and numerous virologists worldwide, the NSABB is no longer opposed to the announcement of the research results by Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka. However, it is still not clear when the data will actually be published, since “Science” and “Nature” will have the manuscripts reviewed by independent scientists for the time being, as is generally the case before research work is published, the science magazines report.

New guidelines for research on certain pathogens At least the new guidelines issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) last week for "dual-use research" in the USA now clearly define how The NIH guideline names 15 pathogens and poisons, which in future will be subject to increased surveillance by the authorities when research is carried out. The pathogens listed include, for example, the H5N1 viruses, anthrax and Ebola viruses. US federal agencies are required to notify the White House within 60 days of how many publicly funded studies are affected. All affected studies should now be examined with a view to possible abuse as a biological weapon and, if necessary, mitigated or no longer supported financially, according to the NIH guidelines. Although the guideline for the research results on the H5N1 viruses no longer has any effects, it could possibly be used to avoid disputes in the future.

Overestimated risk of an avian pandemic? However, a recent study by researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York (USA) may have already overestimated the risk of an avian pandemic. Because the actual infection numbers are significantly higher than indicated by the WHO, wrote the US researchers in the journal "Science". Accordingly, the number of deaths had to be allocated to a much larger number of those affected, which resulted in a significantly lower mortality rate than previously assumed. WHO data estimate that there are only 584 avian influenza infections in people worldwide (since 2003), with 345 patients dying as a result of the infection. Accordingly, the assumed lethality was around 60 percent. However, as the scientists around Taia T. Wang and Peter Palese from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York explained, the official figures of the WHO are to be doubted.

The evaluation of twenty existing studies on H5N1 infections would have shown that approximately one to two percent of the more than 12,500 study participants showed signs of past bird flu disease in their blood. In fact, only serious illnesses in which the patients have to go to the hospital and have poor chances of survival are actually recorded, the US researchers reported in the scientific journal "Science" at the end of February. If - as in the evaluated studies - two percent of the risk group worldwide had already been infected with the pathogen, millions of people would have had bird flu infections without realizing it, the US scientists explained. The number of bird flu-related deaths may also be significantly higher than previously assumed, Wang and colleagues continue. However, the death rate was given by the WHO too high in any case, while the number of infections was underestimated, the US researchers emphasized. A bird flu pandemic would therefore have far less devastating consequences than previously thought. (fp)

Read on:
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Bioterrorism with new laboratory super virus

Image: Gerd Altmann / (image is a tracing)

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