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NSABB Comments on H5N1 Transmission Censorship
Recombinomics Commentary 23:00
January 31, 2012

Recently, several scientific research teams have achieved some success in isolating influenza A/H5N1 viruses that are transmitted efficiently between mammals, in one instance with maintenance of high pathogenicity. This information is very important because, before these experiments were done, it was uncertain whether avian influenza A/H5N1 could ever acquire the capacity for mammal-to-mammal transmission.

Now that this information is known, society can take steps globally to prepare for when nature might generate such a virus spontaneously. At the same time, these scientific results also represent a grave concern for global biosecurity, biosafety, and public health. Could this knowledge, in the hands of malevolent individuals, organizations, or governments, allow construction of a genetically altered influenza virus capable of causing a pandemic with mortality exceeding that of the “Spanish flu” epidemic of 1918?

The above comments are from the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) report, “Adaptations of Avian Flu Virus Are a Cause for Concern”, which was issued today.  The report fails to note reasons why a transmitting H5N1 is a poor choice as a bioweapon (because it can’t be controlled), and instead elevates the transmitting H5N1 into a desirable goal by “malevolent individuals, organizations, or governments", which is to be controlled by censoring papes at Nature and Science which use very different approaches to create a transmitting H5N1 using well known receptor binding domain changes and techniques that have been known for decades.

The main finding of the two papers, efficient transmission of H5N1 in mammals, is now well known, and the achievement of this goal by two groups using very different approaches, indicates any serious program not only could easily replicate these results, but could easily increase transmission and lethality.

Prior to these two reports, “experts” had claimed that H5N1 couldn’t efficiently transmit in mammals because it had not been reported evenb though H5N1 has been infecting humans since 1997, or claimed that efficient transmission would markedly reduce lethality.  Now that it is known that both of these claims have no real scientific basis and have been thoroughly refuted, the NSABB wants to take one fantasy, that a transmitting H5N1 is a desirable bioweapon, and add another fantasy, that censoring the publications at Nature and Science will somehow limit programs targeting an efficiently transmitting H5N1, when in reality, the censorship will only limit those who are not actively involved in transmission experiments.

A state sponsored program would have far more resources than the two labs which demonstrated transmission In the censored papers.  One lab (in the Netherlands) started with H5N1 with three changes and passaged the H5N1 in ferrets 10 times to select two additional changes. These five changes in two gene segments created an H5N1 with transmission efficiencies in ferrets that were similar to seasonal influenza, but maintained lethality.  The other lab (in the United States)created a reassortant with an H5 on a pandemic H1N1 (H1N1pdm09) genetic background.  This reassortant transmitted efficiently, but with a low fatality rate.

However, both of these results can be easily improved using additional combinations, which are either passed in ferrets or placed on a genetic background composed of various H1N1pdm09 genes.  These state sponsored programs would use scientists familiar with the scientific literature, which details transmission experiments, as well as a vast array of H5N1 receptor binding domain changes identified in clustered H5N1 cases and/or receptor binding experiments.

Thus, the NSABB has merely elevated the interest in a bad idea (a transmitting H5N1 as a bioweapon) and attempts to limit future activities in this area by censoring the combinations used in the papers at Nature and Science, while acknowledging “some success” which effectively destroyed any benefit from the recommendation for censorship. 

The 25 members of the board who voted for this recommendation should seriously consider other endeavors, because they fail to understand the true significance of the findings, which identify real bioterrorism due to the natural evolution of H5N1, which is very close to transmitting in mammals, no bioterrorists or NSABB board members required.

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