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H5N1 Bioterrorism Media Myth
Recombinomics Commentary 12:00
February 24, 2012

The recommendation to publish flies in the face of pleas for self-censorship from a U.S. government watchdog, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. The board asked researchers to hold back on releasing crucial “how-to” portions of their work for fear the details would fall into the wrong hands and spark germ warfare on a global scale. Anyone who needs the information for legitimate research, the board reasoned, could make a special request for it.

Not good enough, the WHO committee decided. The new knowledge, every last bit of it, should be freely available. From a public-health perspective, the committee wrote in a statement, full disclosure is the best option.

That conclusion is sending shock waves through the global scientific, epidemiological and counter-terror communities.

The above comments grossly misrepresent the true considerations associated with the release of the full manuscripts at Nature and Science because the media myth ignores the CDC paper published in Virology which provided full details for the creation of an H5 that transmits in ferrets via droplets.  Thus, any would be bioterrorist would already have a “recipe” prior to the NSABB request.  Moreover, the request also came after Ron Fouchier presented his data at a scientific meeting, which has been widely discussed in the media and on scientific forums.  Moreover, recent reports indicate the three changes he introduced onto an H5N1 clade 2,1 isolate from Indonesia, HA Q226S and G228L as well as PB2 E627K, were all included in the CDC publication.  Thus, the recipe for transmission (add the above three “mutations” to an Indonesian H5N1 and then passage it in ferrets 10X) was public prior to publication, as was the formula for the Yoshi Kawaoka paper, which used a clade isolate from Vietnam as an H5 source, which was placed on an H1N1pdm09 genetic background.

The detail that the NSABB wanted to censor was unnecessary for the creation of a transmitting H5N1.  The two labs involved have published extensively previously, so the materials and methods were public and well known, as were the three “mutations” introduced by the CDC in their published studies, as well as the Fouchier delayed study.  It is likely that the H5 used by Kawaoka also had some or all of the same changes.  The fact that three different labs used different H5 sequences which were supported by a range of associated flu genes, clearly demonstrates that the public information available today allows for the creation of a transmitting H5N1.

The NSABB request did little to thwart bioterrorism.  H5N1 is not a bioweapon of choice because it can’t be control.  The NSABB request has elevated this poor choice to a level of importance that will increase the likelihood of a terrorist of rogue state will attempt to create a transmitting H5N1.  The NASBB request also exposed the glaring lack of expertise on their board, include gross mismanagement leading to absurd requests that made little sense from a scientific or operational point of view.

The request has led to delays in release of critical information necessary for effective surveillance and analysis of a naturally evolving H5N1, as well as a long list of media myths which will significantly impact the much need understanding of the H5N1 threat, which is now greater than ever.

The NSABB would better serve the public by forming a new board that emphasized the need for a serious vaccination campaign, which would significantly decrease the H5N1 threat, regardless of source.

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