June 21, 2012

H5N1 Influenza Research Published After Controversy

After many months, the research that details the deliberate creation of a genetically altered H5N1 avian influenza virus has been published this week; this is the second of two papers that caused an outcry earlier this year when it was disclosed that novel H5N1 viruses which exhibited pandemic potential were about to be published (see here, here and here). Great efforts to delay and monitor publication ensued, with the U.S. government advisory committee (NSABB) recommending against publication; later, this was modified in the face of developing information and adverse reaction to the prospect of government-initiated publication restraints (however voluntary). This new paper by Ron Fouchier and colleagues in the Netherlands details the 5 mutations it identified to convert a minimally transmissible virus into a readily transmissible, airborne version in a mammalian model – an attribute that is most likely to make a virus with high mortality but inefficient spread characteristics into a immediate public health threat. The novel viruses were not lethal, but it is thought that the acquisition of transmissibility has been a firewall keeping many lethal viruses in check; thus, the import of this work is clear. The research by Fouchier et al. used the technique of passaging the virus through ferrets in order to produce the novel strain; this method somewhat approximates natural biological processes, as opposed to laboratory-chosen mutations. A team of statisticians assess the likelihood that such a virus could arise naturally (possible and worrisome, through mutations over time). This week's special issue of Science also published many (free) commentaries on this H5N1 publication; notably, whether, from a cyber perspective, any “publication bans” can be meaningful given the likelihood that any computer system can be hacked into; whether the government’s recently announced DURC policy will be effective (this was the attempt to shore up how the government accounts for life science research capable of both benign and malicious uses); and whether the continuing self-imposed moratorium on H5N1 research will continue. Of note is the fact that this novel virus was sensitive to Tamiflu, one of the stock antivirals available in an outbreak. That vulnerability can’t be taken for granted, however. The import of this research is to reveal how a truly pandemic influenza is possibly several mutations away from a natural appearance.

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