Last night, researchers and public health officials gathered high above New York City’s ‘Ground Zero’ in hopes of narrowing the divide within the scientific community over the fate of two papers currently in the press at Nature and Science demonstrating mammalian transmission of avian influenza H5N1. Dozens of commentaries and news stories have born out the debate as to whether or not the research should be published in full, allowing others to replicate it. Michael Osterholm, who was part of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) which unanimously recommended redaction of the papers, referred to them as, “the two most famous unpublished manuscripts in the history of life science.”
At the panel, hosted by The New York Academy of Science, moderator W. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University said that “the emotional debate is something we’re going to try to keep to a low roar tonight.” Emotions nevertheless ran high as panelists accused each other of misrepresenting facts and rushing too quickly to either publish or censor scientific data.
Nature news arranged for video interviews with several of the panelists prior to the event
and we will post these to our website shortly.*
Scientific debates erupted about the mortality rate of H5N1, generally known only to transmit from birds to humans. Peter Palese, a virologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York says that underestimates of the prevalence in the general population have led to an exaggeration as to how deadly H5N1 is. It’s often said to kill 60% of those infected (the deadly ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic of 1918, by comparison, had a 2% mortality rate). Palese recently published an article exploring why this may be an exaggeration. Osterholm contended that Palese was being selective about the literature he cited but added that even if the death rate was an order of magnitude less than 60%, accidental or purposeful release of mutant H5N1 still frightened him, more than the release of smallpox or Ebola viruses.
A circular argument about animal experiments also ensued. Ferrets, which were used to develop the new form of H5N1, are a common model for mammalian transmission. Palese and Vincent Racaniello of Columbia University, argued that the experiments proving mammalian transmission in ferrets don’t necessarily prove a danger for humans. Ferrets have limitations and aren’t perfectly predictive of how the virus might spread between humans. Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations said that this undermines the justification for the work in the first place. “If they do not have predictive value for human beings, then I don’t understand why the experiment was done.”
Barbara Jasny, deputy editor for Science and Véronique Kiermer, executive editor for Nature both appeared willing to accept that the papers will likely be published without the full information necessary to replicate the findings, and argued that there was significant value in doing so. Still, equitably sharing more detailed information with reputable scientists who request it poses a significant challenge that has not quite been worked out. They also recognized the danger in the precedent that redacted publication presents. “I hope this is not something that becomes institutionalized,” says Jasny.
Palese argued that members of the NSABB were being too cautious in recommending only partial publication of the results. “You can always assume the worst. I mean pigs can fly. But I think all the evidence we have right now doesn’t suggest that these H5N1 viruses can be easily transmitted in humans,” he said. “Where do you stop in terms of being afraid”
Osterholm offered an impassioned response. “I sit here with some emotion when I say this: Dammit, this is a real possibility and if we are wrong the consequences will be so catastrophic that we will all go back and ask ourselves, ‘Why did it happen?’”
But perhaps the biggest theme at the panel was an argument about how involved the public and government bodies can and should be in discussing the fate of these papers and others like them. Garret said that the proliferation of do-it-yourself biology hobbyists and striking differences internationally as to how this work has currently been accepted, a discussion with all stakeholders including the public was necessary: “You have to have your ears open to a broader range of society than just the people who look through microscopes,” said Garrett.
*Update 07/02/12: Our video, filmed and edited by Eric Olson is now live.
** Update 07/02/12: NYAS has posted full video from the event.