KSJ Tracker January 29, 2013

Resumption of controversial H5N1 flu research: Has the press told us what we need to know?

This morning, Mom Kunthear and Justine Drennan of The Phnom Penh Post report that a new case of avian flu has been found in a two-year-old girl, the fourth case of the disease in Cambodia since Jan. 1. 

The World Health Organization reports that as of Jan. 16, 610 confirmed cases of H5N1 virus infections have been reported to WHO from 15 countries. Of those infected, 360 died.

The virus generally spreads from chickens to humans, and that is believed to be what is happening in Cambodia and elsewhere. But public-health authorities worry about mutations that could make the virus transmissible from one human to another. To try to understand that risk, some labs had engineered the virus to make it transmissible among mammals (ferrets, whose response to the virus is similar to that of humans). When the research became known, critics warned that such viruses might escape from the lab and pose a danger to humans, and the ensuing outrage moved researchers to declare a voluntary moratorium on the work a year ago. Some critics worried that publication of the research would provide a blueprint for bioterrorists who wanted to engineer and release the virus as a weapon.

Last week, the researchers unilaterally declared an end to the moratorium in a letter published in Science and Nature.  The coverage of that declaration should tell us what happened during that year, why the researchers who agreed to stop the research now think they can proceed safely, and what's known about the risk of human transmission of the H5N1 virus.

Dan Vergano at USA Today provides a nice recap, but in his brief story he doesn't say too much about how the research can be helpful. He does quote one of the researchers involved in the work as saying that the studies "will be aimed at determining the minimum number of genes needed to mutate to make the virus transmissible." That's helpful; but how would that, in turn, lower the risk of an epidemic with a human-transmissible virus? Vergano also quotes an advocate of the research who says the moratorium did little except slow down the work. I would have liked a longer story in which Vergano, a skilled reporter, could have explored these issues at greater length.

At The New York TimesDenise Grady reports that the moratorium allowed most countries to establish rules for the safe conduct of the research. The United States, she reports, has not yet established new guidelines, so U.S. researchers will not be able to resume work yet, nor will researchers funded by the U.S. in other countries be able to use the American funding for their work. She quotes one authority who says that he believes the research should continue but that the details should not be published. But it's difficult to know, from her story, whether an end to the moratorium is justified or not. Expects disagree, it's true. But is there a preponderance of evidence one way or the other? Or is opinion evenly split?

In a post at WiredBrandon Keim does a better job of being specific about the concerns of the critics:

“There has been no substantive progress in the past year,” said microbiologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University. “An independent and transparent determination needed to be made that risks were outweighed by benefits, and that appropriate biosafety precautions were in place.” No such determination was made. Ebright called the decision to lift the moratorium “dangerously irresponsible.”

And he allows one of the researchers to respond, arguing that "transmission research benefits public health" and "the greater risk is not doing research that could help us be better equipped for a pandemic." He then goes on to quote other experts who say there are other ways to study the problem of transmission without creating potentially dangerous mutants--such as using safer, attenuated strains of the virus. Further, David Relman, president of the Infections Disease Society of America, tells Keim "there still has not been a robust discussion between funders, scientists, policy-makers, and the rest of the public." Keim is doing more than repeating opposing views; he's setting up a discussion and giving readers something to chew on. 

Declan Butler at Nature adds some details and notes that the scientific community "remains divided," which gives us a more global picture than merely quoting a couple of experts who disagree. Nell Greenfieldboyce at NPR wraps up the pros and cons quickly, but she leans too far toward the proponents of the research. Most of her 3-minute piece is devoted to them, and only at the end does she talk to a critic who says he worries about the lifting of the moratorium. 

After casting about most of today, however, I've been unable to find a substantial piece that helps me decide whether this decision to resume research was hasty or whether it makes good scientific sense. I have my doubts about it, but I don't have what I need from the stories I saw or heard to resolve those doubts.

-Paul Raeburn


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