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Biosecurity group to review new avian flu data

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) wants a biosecurity review board to reconsider the fate of two unpublished studies of the H5N1 avian flu virus in light of new data and clarifications.

Anthony Fauci, director the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) made the announcement in an early-morning panel discussion of the H5N1 papers at the American Society for Microbiology Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting in Washington DC. The studies show that lab-altered versions of the H5N1 virus can be passed between ferrets — a lab model of human flu infection — through aerosol transmission (sneezes and coughs).

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended in  December that the two studies be published only if essential experimental details are removed. On 17 February, a meeting of experts convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) came to a different conclusion: that the papers should be published in full (see Avian flu controversy comes to roost at WHO).

Investigators on the two detained manuscripts presented new data to the WHO meeting attendees and provided substantial clarification of the original data, especially the data from Ron Fouchier and his colleagues at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, said Fauci. The WHO panel recommended that the investigators revise their manuscripts with the new data and clarifications.

Although the NIH continues to support the NSABB’s original recommendation to publish redacted versions of the original studies, they also “support revision of the manuscripts to include new data and elicit clarifications of old data”, said Fauci. The agency also would like the NSABB to reconvene to examine the revised manuscripts.

Fouchier, who is also on the panel, described the origins of his work, including the NIAID funding he received jointly with researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York in 2006 and the BSL-3+ (biosafety-level 3+) facilities built to conduct research with airborne pathogens.

“We did not take this lightly,” said Fouchier.

Fouchier said that there are many misconceptions about the contagiousness and lethality of the H5N1 virus. While he did not provide details on the nature of the mutations that were created in his lab and enable aerosol transmission, Fouchier did say that the mutant virus “does not spread yet like a pandemic or seasonal flu virus” and that ferrets do not die when infected through aerosol transmission. Only when the virus was physically implanted into the trachea or nasal passages of ferrets did the infected animals die.

“Right now there are too many misconceptions about this work simply because the work cannot be evaluated by everybody involved in making judgments,” said Fouchier.

Michael Osterholm, a member of the NSABB, said that the board is tasked by the US government to provide advice on matters of dual-use research — that which could be used to cause harm in certain hands — and that its first review was the beginning of what should be a global discussion.

“The NSABB never saw itself as the court of the final vote,” said Osterholm.

No date has yet been set for the new NSABB review.

Image credit: Alfredo Gutiérrez



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