Shanghai Culls Poultry as H7N9 Spreads, But Relevant US Research Remains Suspended Due to Security Theater

Partial screen capture of the home page of the Chinese news agency Xinhua (http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/), showing the culling of poultry in Shanghai.

Partial screen capture of the home page of the Chinese news agency Xinhua (http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/), showing the culling of poultry in Shanghai.

Yesterday saw a number of developments in the ongoing story of the emerging H7N9 virus in the Shanghai region of China, as the virus was identified in pigeons being sold at a meat market and the culling of all poultry at that market was initiated. One close associate of an infected person still is being monitored in isolation after developing possible symptoms of the virus and might turn out to be the first case of person to person transfer of the virus. Meanwhile, the CDC already has started work in the US that could lead to a vaccine.

As I pointed out yesterday, key questions to be addressed in understanding how dangerous this virus will be revolve around the issue of how the virus jumps from one host to another and whether it acquires the ability to transfer from one person to another. Sadly, the most directly relevant research in the US on these questions remains suspended due to a cowardly display of security theater by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. Back in late 2011, I wrote about this board asking two prominent scientific journals to censor work that had been approved for publication. The work eventually was published, but only after a hiatus of about six months. As I pointed out at that time, the fears expressed by NSABB were then shown to be entirely unfounded.

In their report online today on the latest developments in the H7N9 emergence, CNN provided a link at the bottom of their story to this story they published back in January, with the headline “Bird flu research resumes — but not in U.S.” From that report:

 Drama surrounding research on the deadly H5N1 avian flu continues, as 40 scientists urge work on the virus to continue in countries that have established guidelines on the safety and aims of the research. The United States is not among them.

This new correspondence, a letter from researchers published Wednesday in the journals Science and Nature, comes after a “voluntary pause” in the research, which scientists announced in January 2012.

/snip/

In many countries, those objectives have been achieved, according to the letter, and researchers who have permission from their governments to continue this research should do so.

Ah, but the US never misses out on an opportunity to over-play its hand when it comes to security theater, so the work hasn’t restarted here:

But the United States has been unclear about how long it will be before it issues official guidelines for conditions under which H5N1 transmission research can continue, the letter says. As such, laboratories in the United States and facilities abroad that receive U.S. funding should not proceed with their transmission studies.

Back when the NASBB first proposed to censor the work that had been done, I had this to say (emphasis added):

However, in the case of the bird flu version of influenza virus, the basic flu virus is found worldwide and undergoes rapid changes. The fact that flu virus changes rapidly suggests that, as mentioned in the snippet above from ScienceInsider, a version similar [to] that developed in the controversial experiment could even arise naturally. Those who would suppress publication of details on how Fouchier’s group developed the pathogenic virus would prevent responsible researchers repeating the work in order to develop an effective treatment for the virus.  Since the virus could arise naturally, preventing work on a treatment is completely irresponsible.

In the CNN article, we have this from one of the scientists whose work has been put on hold (emphasis added again):

“It’s so easily mutated, so the risk exists in nature already, and not doing the research is really putting us in danger,” Kawaoka said at a press conference Wednesday.

While NSABB was busily subjecting us to needless security theater, nature produced what could be the virus for which scientists were trying to prepare us. They were working with the H5N1 virus to address the very questions of host-jumping and person to person transmission that now lie at the heart of the H7N9 emergence. In the best of all worlds, H7N9 will turn out not spread quickly enough to turn into a deadly pandemic. In that good scenario, H7N9 will serve as a wake-up call to once again free the hands of researchers to carry out work that is vital to understanding deadly bird flu virus outbreaks. The alternative is too terrible to consider. If we see widespread death from H7N9, we will be left to wonder how many of those deaths could have been prevented if this important research had not been suspended.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
27 replies
  1. Jim White says:

    And the researchers in the Netherlands who have been doing the H5N1 transmission work chime in:

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/04/us-birdflu-ressearch-idUSBRE9330M820130404

    Scientists in the Dutch city of Rotterdam know precisely what it takes for a bird flu to mutate into a potential human pandemic strain – because they’ve created just such mutant viruses in the laboratory.

    So as they watch with some trepidation the emergence in China of a strain of bird flu previously unknown in humans, they also argue it vindicates their controversial decision to conduct these risky experiments despite fierce opposition.

  2. Jim White says:

    @klynn: The current H7N9 bird flu is just one newly emerging version. I would imagine there was another, more “conventional” bird flu that was circulating in those countries at that time, prompting the quarantine notice at the height of conventional flu season.

    Of course, it also could have been Tyson using USDA to protect their market share…

  3. Jim White says:

    @klynn: Thanks. Yes, there have been negative tests on some of the carcasses but I’d like to see more information on what condition those carcasses were in and how the tests were carried out, and what the tests were capable of detecting before we can rest assured that at least some of the outbreak isn’t due to the pigs.

    I’ve also seen explanations that the pig carcasses are unrelated to the outbreak and were in the rivers because the authorities just began cracking down on the grey market that moved diseased and dead pigs to market illicitly. I have trouble with that explanation because the number of dead pigs seems so large.

  4. Jim White says:

    More from the laboratory that worked on H5N1 transmission in the Netherlands:

    The H7N9 strain, which is a new virus formed as a result of two others merging their genetic material, has features of viruses that are known to jump easily from birds to mammals, and a mutation that may help it attach to cells in the respiratory tract, said Ron Fouchier, a professor of molecular virology at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, in a telephone interview yesterday.

    “That’s certainly not good news,” said Fouchier, who reviewed a gene sequencing of H7N9 published by Chinese health authorities. “This virus really doesn’t look like a bird virus anymore; it looks like a mammalian virus.”

    /snip/

    Fouchier authored a study last year that showed five genetic tweaks to the deadly H5N1 virus, which has killed more than 600 people since 2003, made it airborne in ferrets, the mammals whose response to flu most closely resembles that of humans.

    One of the mutations he made is in an enzyme called polymerase; another was in a protein called hemagglutinin on the surface of the virus. H7N9 has both mutations, he said.

    “This virus is certainly of more concern than the vast majority of bird flu viruses,” Fouchier said. “Most bird flu viruses that we know do not have these mutations.”

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-05/new-bird-flu-seen-having-some-markers-of-airborne-killer.html

  5. Jim White says:

    The good news that has developed since I wrote this post yesterday is that multiple sources now report that the one patient who was being monitored as possibly infected through person-to-person contact definitely does not have H7N9, so we still have no cases of such transmission.

    Reuters just put up a story where the researchers involved in the work that led NSABB to go through their security theater now are saying that this virus vindicates their research:

    Scientists in the Dutch city of Rotterdam know precisely what it takes for a bird flu to mutate into a potential human pandemic strain – because they’ve created just such mutant viruses in the laboratory.

    So as they watch with some trepidation the emergence in China of a strain of bird flu previously unknown in humans, they also argue it vindicates their controversial decision to conduct these risky experiments despite fierce opposition.

    Above all else, what the world needs to know about this new strain of H7N9 bird flu is how likely it is to be able to spread efficiently among human populations.

    And according to Ab Osterhaus, a world leading flu researcher who is head of viroscience of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, studies his team and another in the United States have been doing are the best way to find out.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/04/us-birdflu-ressearch-idUSBRE9330M820130404

  6. pmcall says:

    Jim, I ran across this quote from a World Health Organization representative:

    “Although we do not know the source of infection, at this time there is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission,” Michael O’Leary, the WHO’s representative in China, told a news conference in Beijing.

    “The human cases we know of are very serious. A large proportion have died,” he added.

    http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130408/no-proof-chinas-h7n9-spreading-between-humans

    If 6 patients out of 21 cases have died is this % (roughly 29%) considered to be a high mortality rate for bird flu? I know with ebola the mortality rate is much higher but I have no idea if 29% is considered high for bird flu.

    This quote from the same article didn’t sound very good.

    A Chinese expert said more H7N9 cases could be found in a wider area.

    “We are tracking the source and cannot rule out the possibility of finding the virus in other regions,” said Feng Zijian, director of the emergency office for China’s disease control centre.

    Another official, Shu Yuelong, said that poultry infected with the H7N9 strain die more slowly than those with H5N1, giving the virus more time in which to infect people.

  7. Jim White says:

    @pmcall: That is a very high percentage for bird flu, but as Laurie Garrett points out at CNN, at the current time we don’t have really good numbers on which to base that estimate. Early in an outbreak, the information we have is biased toward the severe cases. We know pretty well how many people have died from the virus (although some early deaths might have been missed before awareness was heightened), but we don’t have a good handle at all on how many people have been infected. To get that information, it will be necessary to test a large number of people for antibodies so that we can know how many people were infected without getting any symptoms of which they were aware. Then we can get the real number and see if this bird falls into the lethality levels seen for others.

    Link: http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/06/chinas-bird-flu-mystery/

  8. Jim White says:

    @klynn: Thanks. That’s a good article that I hadn’t seen. As might be expected, there already are conspiracy theories floating in China that the US engineered the virus…

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