After months of controversy, the World Health Organisation – WHO – has decided to allow the publication of controversial research into bird flu. Scientists in the Netherlands and the United States have made versions of the virus which could potentially spread more easily between humans. There were calls for the research to be kept secret, and WHO indicated earlier this month that this was their preference, but the WHO has decided it is in the public interest to release it.
The disease remains a huge problem in countries from Indonesia to Egypt. When the H5N1 strain of bird flu has been contracted by humans, more than 60 per cent have died, making it one of the most lethal strains of flu ever detected. An expert panel convened by the WHO has decided the research should be published in full. The panel says the research should not be published until it has increased public awareness and understanding and reviewed issues of bio-safety and biosecurity.
James Cook University Microbiologist, Dr Graham Burgess says that this is the right decision. ”If you know how serious it is, it may actually elevate it in importance and we may actually spend some money,” he said. Dr Burgess says all the changes synthesised by the scientists have shown up in nature, just never all at once. He also says he does not think publishing the research will add to the risk of extremist groups using the information for terrorist purposes.
“You can never underestimate what people will do when they are trying to be desperate about what they’re doing, but I think the thing is it is a fairly logical set of steps and if somebody really knows what they’re doing, a number of these biological, potential biological weapons, could be developed and I think the information is probably already out there,” Dr Burgess said. ”The terrorists, if they are really are keen, they’ll get the right people and they’ll be able to do it anyway.”
Since 2003, the H5N1 strain of bird flu has infected 584 people and killed 345.
Dr Burgess says if the virus hit Australia, more than 1 million people would die. ”You are going to have probably a pretty significant proportion of the remainder of the population very, very sick, possibly needing respirators and so forth,” he said. ”There is absolutely no way that we have that sort of gear in our hospitals, so it is going to be pretty serious.”
So far, it has been very difficult for H5N1 to pass from animals to humans and it has not been transmitted from person to person. But two sets of scientists have been trying to work out what changes would need to take place for the virus to be passed between humans.
Dr Burgess says such research is extremely important. ”What this has been able to do is identify each of the individual changes that needs to occur and allow us to document those changes, so that if we see those in nature we have got a much better idea of how much importance we should put on those strains,” he said.
Working with ferrets, the teams in the US and the Netherlands have been able to create versions of the virus which can be passed from one ferret to another, and which have very high mortality rates. That has raised concerns. Dr Burgess says the labs did not have sufficiently high security. ”These have now reached the stage where they are dangerous to the people in the laboratory, but if they get out into the community they could potentially sweep through the community and produce massive changes, so we need to have these in a much higher level of security,” Dr Burgess said. ”The other one is that having worked out how to do it, you have essentially provided somebody with a blueprint to take what is a pretty bad virus and make it into something rather horrific, and that is one of the debates as well; should you be telling people… essentially how to make a bomb?”
The turnaround comes after a February 18 Report indicating that The World Health Organisation had ordered that new research into the bird flu virus be kept from the public because of concerns that it could be used by terrorists to create biological weapons. The decision has been made after it was revealed that researchers in the United States and the Netherlands have created a form of the virus that is more easily transmissible.
WHO spokesman Keiji Fukuda says a moratorium on publication is necessary. ”We wanted to address some of the most concrete and urgent issues relating to the research and in particular related to questions about the publication of the information and the handling of the new laboratory modified viruses,” Fukuda said. ”Given the current situation it was best to continue that moratorium.”
But the leader of one of the bird flu research teams, Ron Fouchier, disagrees with any delay in publication. ”It was the view of the entire group that assembled here that actually the risks of this particular virus and influenza viruses in general even, would be used as bio-terrorism agents would be very, very slim,” Fukuda said. ”On the other hand this group has come out with the opinion very strongly how big the public health benefits are from doing this work.”
On January 22, a man in south-west China who contracted the bird flu virus died on Sunday, health authorities said, the second human death from the virulent disease in the country in just under a month. The news comes after neighbouring Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia also reported deaths from avian influenza, and after chickens tested positive for the H5N1 virus in Hong Kong, prompting a mass cull of birds. The latest Chinese victim fell ill on January 6 and was admitted to hospital in Guiyang – capital of Guizhou province – where his condition rapidly deteriorated, the provincial health department said in a statement. Tests on the patient before he died confirmed he had contracted the H5N1 virus, it added.
“So far, 71 people who had close contact with the victim have not developed abnormal symptoms,” a health department spokesperson said. He is the second man to die from bird flu in China in less than a month, after a bus driver in the southern province of Guangdong passed away from the disease on December 31.
The latest death brings to 28 the number of people in China who have died from the disease – which is fatal in humans in about 60 per cent of cases – since 2003, out of 42 reported human cases. The Hong Kong Department of Health said in a statement on Sunday it had been notified of the case by the mainland’s health authorities, which said the patient was 39 years old. Authorities from Hong Kong and the mainland have been working closely together since three chickens in the Chinese territory tested positive for the H5N1 virus in mid-December.
Most human infections are the result of direct contact with infected birds, and the virus does not pass easily among humans. WHO says it has never identified a “sustained human-to-human spread” of the virus since it re-emerged in 2003. But according to the Hong Kong health department, the Guizhou province victim, who has not been named, had not reported any obvious exposure to poultry before the onset of symptoms.
Aside from China, Vietnam on Thursday reported its first human death from the virus in nearly two years, and the disease also claimed the life of a toddler in Cambodia. Indonesia, meanwhile, on Friday reported its second human death from bird flu this year when a five-year-old girl who recently lost her relative to the deadly virus also passed away. China is considered one of the nations most at risk of bird flu epidemics because it has the world’s biggest poultry population and many chickens in rural areas are kept close to humans.
On February 1 this year, after an outbreak of suspected bird flu in Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Hong Kong have banned imports of poultry from Victoria, while Japan has suspended imports from all parts of Australia. About 24,000 free range ducks on farms at New Gisborne and Mickleham, north-west of Melbourne were destroyed after testing positive to a low pathogenic strain of the virus. The head of the Australian Chicken Foundation, Andreas Dubs, says the action by Japan is unnecessary
“It is often the case that a country might over-react a little at the first news,” Mr Dubs said. ”I think that might be the case with Japan, that the initial reaction is to stop everything and hopefully, in due course, a few days, those limitations might be lifted.”
The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry says it is keeping trading partners informed of how the outbreak is being managed. Victorian Deputy Premier, Peter Ryan, says he does not think the outbreak will have long term effects for the state’s poultry industry. ”We have a very strong place in these markets both domestically and particularly internationally,” Peter Ryan said. ”Our quality control is recognised world-wide as being the best, certainly amongst the best. These issues do arise intermittently and I’m sure it will be accommodated sooner than later and we’ll be back in the market.”
In December 2011, Hong Kong faced a similar dilema, cullin 17,000 chickens and suspending live poultry imports for 21 days after three birds tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu virus. Health chief York Chow announced the measures after a dead chicken at the city’s main wholesale market and two wild birds tested positive for the virus, which can be fatal to humans. Authorities raised the bird flu alert level to “serious” and suspended live imports while they trace the origin of the infected chicken, meaning major disruptions to poultry supplies over the busy Christmas period.
“It is unfortunate that an avian influenza case is detected before the Winter Solstice, necessitating a halt to the supply of live chickens,” Mr Chow said. ”I understand that it will cause inconvenience to the public and the poultry trade will also encounter losses.”
All chickens at the Wholesale Poultry Market were slaughtered and extra inspections were ordered at chicken farms and hospitals. Authorities confirmed on Tuesday that an oriental magpie robin found dead in a secondary school at the weekend had tested positive for H5N1, the second such case in a week. Another secondary school was ordered to close for a day for disinfection last Friday after a dead black-headed gull was found with the virus.
A school clerk who picked up the bird was taken to hospital with her son, who had developed flu-like symptoms, but both were cleared later. Hong Kong was the site of the world’s first major outbreak of bird flu among humans in 1997 when six people died. Millions of birds were culled.
The virus, which does not pass easily from human to human, has killed around 350 people worldwide, with Indonesia the worst-hit country. Most human infections are the result of direct contact with infected birds. In people it can cause fever, coughing, a sore throat, pneumonia, respiratory disease and, in about 60 per cent of cases, death.
Scientists fear H5N1 will mutate into a form readily transmissible between humans with the potential to cause millions of deaths. Hong Kong is particularly nervous about infectious diseases after an outbreak of deadly respiratory disease SARS in 2003 killed 300 people in the city and a further 500 worldwide.