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Medicine Science

Details of the Second Controversial Mutant Bird Flu Study Finally Published 78

An anonymous reader writes "The second of the two controversial bird flu studies once considered too risky to publish in fears that they would trigger a potentially devastating global influenza epidemic was published Thursday. The study describes how scientists created H5N1 virus strains that could become capable of airborne transmission between mammals. Scientists said that the findings, which had been censored for half a year, could help them detect dangerous virus strains in nature."
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Details of the Second Controversial Mutant Bird Flu Study Finally Published

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 21, 2012 @11:59PM (#40407447)

    Posting AC because I'm talking about work (and stupid things we discussed as work).

    When Kawaoka published, my lab got together and examined what it would take to actually build the virus. It was surprisingly easy--and I'm an undergraduate intern in a bacterial lab (but I am studying viro, hence my interest). We could do it within our tiny budget with no problem, and the professor said he thought his students could do it with the help of a textbook. Order the genetic code in snippets, stitch it together, make plasmid, express it. You could do that in your bedroom after dropping a few thousand dollars on basic, easy-to-use lab gear and custom genetic fragments.

    I'm not defending the censorship, which has been demonstrated again and again was utterly without merit, but I can understand why it happened.

    Kawaoka and Fouchier suffered because, partially at their own hand, their papers were initially misrepresented. Somehow, somewhere, someone said that all of their ferrets died of flu. This simply isn't true. This was therefore repeated and repeated until it became an 'official' rumor, largely because this isn't a statistic typically associated with flu. Because this was marked as potentially dangerous virus, the paper was reviewed by the NSABB (National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity). NSABB examines papers that may be of 'dual use'--useful to research and useful to terrorists. The NSABB *does* have trained virologists, but since NSABB is primarily appointed by present NSABB members from a pool of people who are interested in NSABB work, it's full of people who are in the biosecurity mindset. The NSABB, by the way, is a purely advisory board with no powers whatsoever.

    Their recommendation was basically 'let's wait and think more about this.' Therefore, the now-known harmless nature of the viruses suddenly became a secret. Kawaoka and Fouchier could have prevent this controversy by releasing their conclusion with no details, but they decided to play by the rules and not talk about anything.

    The blame is spread around a fair bit, but it stands most firmly on the NSABB's hesitance and gag order (or gag suggestion, I suppose). Personally (and a number of prominent virologists seem to agree), I think that the media's need for a story is the central problem, as it both took the bad facts about the results and repeated them, ultimately passing them on to NSABB.

    If this had been a nasty virus, this hype would be justified. Yes, we can make plague, 1918 flu, etc, in the lab, but we know those viruses. Without knowing that, for instance, oseltamivir kills these new viruses very easily, we were potentially faced with a novel virus with zero data as to how we could respond to it.

    As to releasing the cure before the paper, that's actually possible: the novel from the virus and data from the paper could have been handed over to federal (probably military) labs, who could have worked on a vaccine.

    If you have some hours to burn, check out http://www.twiv.tv/tag/nsabb/ for a lengthy but decent coverage by a few of the best-know virologists.

It is not for me to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence. -- The Earl of Birkenhead