Although H5N1 influenza virus (aka “bird flu) has been associated with high case fatality rates in humans with clinically apparent disease, pandemic risk was considered low because of its inability to directly pass from person to person. The majority of H5N1 cases originate from exposure to tainted poultry, and some experts have questioned whether transmission between mammals is even possible. However, recent reports from two laboratories studying H5N1 inspired concern after announcing that they had generated highly contagious, mutant H5N1 strains in ferrets.
Independent studies led by Ron Fouchier (Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam) and Yoshihiro Kawaoka (Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison) revealed that only a few mutations in the H5N1 genome were needed for mammalian transmissibility. Scientists, public health officials and journalists are wrestling with how to handle this information. Some assert that it should be freely disseminated to enable the larger scientific community to resolve fundamental questions about viral evolution/transmission and prepare for the potential emergence of an H5N1 human pandemic strain. Others are concerned that the accidental or deliberate release of these strains could inadvertently spawn a pandemic.
How dangerous is this type of research for the public health?
What evidence is there that influenza viruses transmissible in ferrets are transmissible between humans?
How is dual-use research important for public health?
What is the appropriate role for government in regulating science?
Last Thursday, the CII and the New York Academy of Sciences convened a special panel discussion – entitled “Dual-Use Research: H5N1 Influenza Virus and Beyond” – to promote a wider discourse that will reduce the rhetoric and move the scientific community towards a consensus regarding the myriad issues surrounding dual-use research. The panel was comprised of national security advisors from the NSABB, top virologists, biosecurity experts, and representatives from Nature/Science (listed below). The event was moderated by the Director of the Center of Infection and Immunity: Dr. W. Ian Lipkin.
NYAS Organizer: Jennifer Henry, PhD
Moderator: W. Ian Lipkin, MD, Director of the Center for Infection and Immunity, Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University
Arturo Casadevall, MD, PhD, Chairman of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), University of Minnesota
Laurie Garrett, PhD, Senior Fellow for Global Health and Pulitzer prize-winning science writer, Council on Foreign Relations=
Alan S. Ruldolph, PhD, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, U.S. Department of Defense