Suppressing data won’t stop threat of flu weapon – expert

The New Zealand Government should not support efforts by United States regulators to suppress details in scientific reports of Dutch research which showed how a killer birdflu mutated to become highly contagious and easily spread in the air that we breathe,  says an Auckland scientist.

The  highly pathogenic H5N1 virus changed through repeated infection of caged ferrets to become capable of easy airborne spread, and the United States’ National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (USABB) has asked scientific journals to delete details regarding both scientific methodology and specific viral mutations before publishing articles on the research.

The US is concerned the details might be used by terrorists to create  a bio-weapon. But Auckland University microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles, the HRC Hercus Fellow in molecular medicine and pathology, said today: “I do not believe the New Zealand Government should support the suppression of the Erasmus study”. (Dr Wiles also commented in her own blog.)

Instead, the Government should help the public understand why such research was  important, and that it was highly controlled in  specialised laboratories designed to minimise  risks of release,  she said.

The greatest risk was that such mutations could occur naturally where people and animals such as poultry lived together, and it was “absolutely crucial” scientists  monitoring the viruses in the environment knew what mutations to look out for.

Overseas, the reports that an  infectious highly pathogenic bird flu virus — with the theoretical potential of killing 60 percent of the people it infected — had evolved in a university laboratory raised questions over whether details should be kept from publication in  scientific journals to avoid the possibility that bioterrorists might try to produce the H5N1 virus as a weapon.

Counter-arguments have been made that sharing the data would allow other scientists to examine the new virus and come up with better ways to counter potential pandemics. These issues were canvassed by overseas researchers in an earlier SMC alert.

The mutant strain of the H5N1 virus – which is airborne, unlike previous strains – was derived through five mutations. The findings by the team from the  Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, led by virologist Dr Ron Fouchier, were presented at a conference in September, and described genetic changes that allowed the virus to be easily transmitted between ferrets. The same university published work in 2009 on airborne  spread of H1N1 flu virus between ferrets.

Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles, the HRC Hercus Fellow in molecular medicine and pathology at Auckland University told the SMC:

“While there may be little risk to New Zealand of H5N1 from infected migratory birds, our proximity to Asia and the ever increasing popularity of air travel, make this a far more likely route for the virus onto our shores.  It is important for everyone, policy makers and the public alike, to understand that a ‘weaponised’ form of H5N1 may already be brewing in nature.

“In fact, this scenario is more likely than some so called ‘rogue-state’ acting on the data in the two manuscripts submitted to Nature and Science.
What the manuscripts report is what mutations make H5N1 potentially capable of a lethal pandemic. For this reason, it is absolutely crucial that those monitoring the viruses circulating in the environment know what mutations to look out for. The mutations are likely to occur in a stepwise fashion, so knowing where the viruses are on the path to ‘weaponisation’ is important for predicting when such a virus may actually arise.

“While what the 5 mutations are may not be common knowledge, the fact they arose after repeatedly infecting ferrets is public knowledge. If someone was set on ‘weaponising’ H5N1, they could easily start from scratch using a virus isolated from an infected person or bird and some ferrets.  Suppressing the data from scientists, be they in New Zealand or elsewhere, won’t prevent this.

“It would do New Zealand no harm to ensure that the country is prepared for such a pandemic, and while costly, a repeat of the whole-of-New-Zealand exercise would be a good opportunity to reassure the public that the national emergency responders are prepared. In the first instance panic is likely to cause more harm than the actual virus, so having effective communication strategies in place to manage the panic is crucial.

“The UK government has recently announced its commitment to opening up access to publicly-funded research. In reality, this is likely to take the form of requiring papers from publicly-funded research to be archived on accessible databases. Questions such as those raised by these manuscripts will therefore need to be discussed. In the worldwide scientific community, the appetite for such databases is increasing and New Zealand should not be left behind. We have world class researchers doing excellent science and should contribute to debates such as these.

“I do not believe the New Zealand Government should support the suppression of the Erasmus study. Rather the Government should work to educate the public as to why research like this is important. Researchers using microorganisms are highly controlled and carry out experiments in specialised laboratories designed to minimise any risks of release.

“Research using animals is even more regulated, with the same requirements to minimise any risks of release. It is clear from the anthrax ‘attack’ in the USA a decade ago that the mere threat of a biological weapon is enough to act as a ‘weapon of mass disruption’.  This is probably a much more likely scenario than someone actually using a ‘weaponised’ microorganism”.