Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Science Gone Mad

UPDATE: Pogue made some good points in a comment and finding it a little unwieldy to include all the links in a comment, I decided to go the update route.

So first, Pogue's comment:

OK, not having seen what the original research proposal was it's difficult to say what funding was specifically approved for. As I read the article, the form of H5N1 they worked with is not contagious to humans, so I don't know how it was made "more deadly" other than for headline effect. I doubt that the proposal was to make it an airborne pathogen. In my circles that is referred to as "weaponizing a virus" and I'm not surprised that there is discussion about classifying it. The technique is the issue, not the specific result. When we get into a "government shouldn't have funded that research" argument be careful what you wish for - almost any research may have some potentially dangerous applications, so we shouldn't support stem cell or HIV related research, right?
First, let me say, that for me, personally, the issue of who financed the research is much less of an issue than that scientists intentionally set out to do this. [See my previous comment re: just because you can do something doesn't mean you should actually do it.]  Although, I must say, seeing who the backer was does make me stop and shake my head more than a little bit.

Moving on, I think I see where/why you got the idea that this specific strain of H5N1 is not "contagious to humans". Unfortunately, the quote was a little misleading.
The researchers, led by Albert Osterhaus of the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, mutated the H5N1 strain of avain flu, which could not be transmitted between humans, to an "airborne" strain that can be transmitted in coughs and sneezes between laboratory ferrets, the best animal model of human flu.
What they were (rather badly) trying to say was that (prior to the present research) this strain of the virus was not transmittable between humans - from coughs or sneezes. However, although it's ability to infect humans was limited (transmission required direct contract with either infected poultry or contaminated surfaces) it has proven to be deadly when it does. In fact, you might recall back in 1997, when it spread through live-poultry markets in Hong Kong to humans, killing 6 of 18 infected people. So far, on average, it's killed roughly 60% of the humans it has infected. You can find a list of the confirmed human cases and mortality ratehere.

So as far as I am concerned both the technique and the result are the problem. I don't know whether they started out with the intention of "weaponizing the virus" (frankly, I have no idea what they might have been thinking at that point) but that certainly does appear to be the result.

I must admit I can't quite follow your comment about not supporting stem cell or HIV research because almost any research can have potentially dangerous applications. From what I know about stem cell research, the only down side is that some individuals have used aborted fetuses to harvest infant stem cells. Putting aside the fact that adult stem cells are suppose to work just as well (if not better, in most cases), I see that as a problem with how people choose to use new scientific knowledge as opposed to a problem with the research itself. And, quite frankly, I can't quite get my head around what you might be thinking about with HIV research.


Could somebody please explain this to me?

But, please, speak real slowly ... because you're going to have to work really hard to make me understand, let alone accept, this one.
A new report out Tuesday claims Dutch scientists have created a highly contagious, airborne form of the bird flu, which could potentially be capable of killing millions.

Unlike the normal H5N1 strain of avian influenza - which was only contagious through close personal contact with an infected person - this form can be spread by merely coughing or sneezing.

The lab-created bird flu strain was engineered by a team of scientists led by Ron Fouchier of Rotterdam's Erasmus Medical Centre. The researchers said the mutation only required a few variations to the original strain.
But wait ... it gets better!

The research was funded by ... wait for it ... the United States National Institutes of Idiocracy Health.  And ... and for the piece de resistance... officials of that same government have begged requested researchers not to release information concerning the virus to the scientific community.

Because ... you know ... if they did, well, maybe, just maybe, some terrorist group might get ahold of it. And you know, kill us all. The theory of unforeseen consequences always being at play and all.

But, hey, don't take my word for it.
The decision was made after the US government warned releasing the details could be kill millions of people if it was used as a weapon of biological warfare.
Of course, freedom of speech and scientific integrity being the laudable constructs they are, the idiots scientists involved have expressed concern "about withholding potentially important public-health information from responsible influenza researchers".

As to the justification for that concern - apparently, "many scientists within the influenza community have a bona fide need to know the details of this research in order to protect the public, especially if they currently are working with related strains of the virus".

Right, that.

And yet it seems rather self-obvious that there would be a lot less need to know and a lot less to protect the public from if this particular virus hadn't been so painstakingly created in the first place.

I mean just because you can do something ... does that always mean you should?

Just for giggles, I note that the scientific community isn't all that impressed with the request to have the research information withheld; first, because they note that, perhaps,the government ought not to have authorized the research if they did not know how to deal with it and, secondly, it's all a little too late considering that several details had already been shared with hundreds of researchers and governments in open meetings.

So, has everybody had their flu shot for this year?

6 comments:

Genome Expression said...

Is this a real news about bird flue?

MMC said...

Follow the links in the post or Google it yourself - it is a real news story about scientists (fimded by the US Insitute of Health) who modified the bird flu virus to make it many, many more times deadly than it originally was.

"The researchers, led by Albert Osterhaus of the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, mutated the H5N1 strain of avain flu, which could not be transmitted between humans, to an "airborne" strain that can be transmitted in coughs and sneezes between laboratory ferrets, the best animal model of human flu. Osterhaus and Kawaoka have submitted manuscripts to journals Science and Nature, respectively."

http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/271388/20111222/scientists-create-contagious-killer-flu-virus-u.htm

Pogue said...

OK, not having seen what the original research proposal was it's difficult to say what funding was specifically approved for. As I read the article, the form of H5N1 they worked with is not contagious to humans, so I don't know how it was made "more deadly" other than for headline effect. I doubt that the proposal was to make it an airborne pathogen. In my circles that is referred to as "weaponizing a virus" and I'm not surprised that there is discussion about classifying it. The technique is the issue, not the specific result. When we get into a "government shouldn't have funded that research" argument be careful what you wish for - almost any research may have some potentially dangerous applications, so we shouldn't support stem cell or HIV related research, right?

Pogue said...

Hmmm... there are multiple strains of H5N1, but I'm still not seeing how you're making the connection that they worked with or developed a strain contagious to humans. As I read the quote in your update, the airborne strain they developed was contagious to ferrets, "the best animal model of human flu." The huge (and valid) medical concern is when the avian flu jumps species the new strain may have a high mortality rate such as the 1997 outbreak you referred to. The reason the CDC has kittens every time the swine flu (H1N1) reappears is that the 1918 flu pandemic was a strain of H1N1. I don't think the scientists were insane enough to play with a human strain of avian flu. I still don't have a good understanding of what they were trying to accomplish or what their proposal was, although in the research world all too often the real purpose is to secure more funding.

I'll withdraw my comments on the funding side of it - you phrased it better with your "what people choose to use new scientific knowledge" comment anyways.

I actually agree with you as far as the stupidity of the whole thing goes, I'm still trying to find out what their actual objective was.

Pogue said...

Oh, and have a Happy New Year!

MMC said...

Pogue, if you want to follow the other two links (from Wikipedia) provided in my update, I hope you will follow my reasoning.

"Influenza A virus subtype H5N1, also known as "bird flu", A(H5N1) or simply H5N1, is a subtype of the influenza A virus which can cause illness in humans and many other animal species.
. . .
A novel highly contagious strain of H5N1 was created by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who first presented his work to the public at an influenza conference in Malta in September 2011.[5] Five mutations were introduced into the H5N1 genome and the virus was then bred by passing if from the noses of infected ferrets to the noses of uninfected ones, which was repeated 10 times.[6] Fouchier described the result as "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make".
. . .
HPAI A(H5N1) is considered an avian disease, although there is some evidence of limited human-to-human transmission of the virus.[8] A risk factor for contracting the virus is handling of infected poultry, but transmission of the virus from infected birds to humans is inefficient.[9] Still, around 60% of humans known to have been infected with the current Asian strain of HPAI A(H5N1) have died from it, and H5N1 may mutate or reassort into a strain capable of efficient human-to-human transmission.
"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Influenza_A_virus_subtype_H5N1

But, no, I wouldn't characterize it as a human strain of avian flu (actually I'm not quite sure what that would even look like) but as avian flu which could be passed to humans (via direct contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces) but was not transferrable human to human. Until now that is.

Then again, as I write that, I am starting to confuse myself. So, yeah, let's just leave it by agreeing on the apparent stupidy of the whole thing. If you ever do come across their actual objective, though, please let me know.

And, more importantly, Happy New Year to you too!