Disclaimer: I do not work with influenza on an empirical basis. However, I have authored a chapter on the genetic origins of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic strain that has been published in a book by the Pennsylvania Academy of Sciences. 


For the first time ever, the US government has asked scientific journals not to publish certain details of the methodology used in a study to create a highly transmissible strain of the H5N1 bird flu virus. The study in question was a joint venture between researchers at University of Wisconsin-Madison and Erasmus Medical Center at Rotterdam, Netherlands, and it showed that the virus spread among ferret populations just through airborne transmission alone without the need for direct contact (ref). This has caused the bioterrorism alarm to go off in the government administration and the purpose of this study has been called into question, regardless of the reassurance by Dr. Ron Fouchier (leader of the Erasmus team) that security was one of the top priorities in the study performed. In an interview, Dr. Fouchier has informed us that the experimental design was carried out over a period of 10 years and that throughout the hands-on work (2 year period), there were no security breaches. Of course, the specific mutations performed were not disclosed, but he did point out that carrying out the mutation pattern for developing such a virus requires highly sophisticated facility. While many biosecurity experts have called on the need for such a “dangerous” study, Dr. Fouchier has claimed that such studies will help prepare us for possible flu pandemics in the future and allow for better vaccine and drug development. And such a claim is not unfounded, to say the least, when our preventive measures against flu in general are scrutinized.

The H5N1 flu virus does not usually transmit to humans because of different sialic acid binding receptors present in the airways of mammals and birds. In total, 501 cases of humans affected by H5N1 have been reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) and 297 of these cases were found to be fatal (Imai et al, 2010). The problem, as a public policy expert points out, is not the transmissibility of the virus, but rather the lack of surveillance and political issues regarding this virus. The same has been vocalized by scientists who complained against the indifference of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) towards taking proper precautions against possible flu pandemics through better surveillance.

Regardless of the surveillance problem, there is another issue that must be discussed in regards to the virulence of this new H5N1 virus. Researchers argue that increased rates of transmission will actually reduce the virulence of the strain, a prime example being the most recent flu pandemic in 2009. A followup study performed in 2010 showed that the pandemic H1N1 was no more severe than the seasonal flu. This goes on to show that although the 2009 H1N1 was highly contagious, it was not as virulent. Another question that rises from this study is the use of ferrets as models for studying flu in humans. As this great blog post notes, although the ferrets have proved to be the good models so far as they display human-like symptoms of flu infection, they do not always represent the effect of flu on humans, as in the case of the 2009 H1N1. Also, ferrets have shown to be a much more sensitive system to study flu compared to humans (ref) as they display neurological symptoms, even when exposed to the seasonal strains. With all this information, is it really worth freaking out over this mutant H5N1 strain as the “Flu of Doom“, when the 1918 pandemic flu strain could be created in lab (ref) or even polio has been created from scratch?

While this debate still rages on, the question of who can have access to such a publication (censored or not) comes into mind. As Dr. Fouchier put it in his interview, the whole study should be made accessible to the flu research community for better understanding of the H5N1 virus. The US govt is reviewing the option of only allowing flu researchers to view the data and on top of that, it seems that it may also be against open access to scientific data. The new “Research Works Act“, introduced in the House of Representatives last month and sponsored by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and backed by the Association of American Publishers, will be “ensuring the continued publication and integrity of peer-reviewed research works by the private sector”. What it actually means is that the National Institutes of Health will NOT require its grantees anymore to submit their publications to its library, thus essentially requiring taxpayers to pay more to read the results of the studies that they had already paid for (ref)! What is even more ironic is that the same Rep. Issa has been a vocal proponent against the controversial SOPA bill (ref), but as Dr. Michael Eisen points out, clearly such actions come from a financial interest on both representatives’ parts.

How does the flu freakout tie in with restricting open access to research data? It’s pretty simple actually – restricting access to such sensitive data would actually promote “terrorists” to hack into the data and make it more widely available in conspiring circles (ref). This goes hand in hand with the fact that restricting open access to any research data for that matter will considerably slow down progress of Science itself, as shown by the examples here. And as a recent study showed, collaboration between scientists and open access to data, not only ensure, but also increase the rate at which progress is made in the scientific community.

Thankfully enough, majority of scientists have spoken out against this new bill being pushed by AAP-funded representatives and I urge you to do the same. It is only through collaboration and open access will we be able to solve scientific and social problems, old and new.