Monday, January 16, 2012

Bird flu: Terrorists aren't the the real danger

Keeping superbugs away from terrorists

LAURIE GARRETT. January 11, 2012. Capital Times.

When flu scientist Ron Fouchier, of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, announced in September that he had made a highly contagious, supervirulent form of the bird-flu virus, a long chain of political events unfolded, mostly out of the public eye. Fouchier told European virologists at a meeting in Malta that he had created a form of the H5N1 avian flu — which is extremely dangerous to both birds and mammals, but only contagious via birds — that was both 60 percent fatal to infected animals and readily transmitted through the air between ferrets, which are used as experimental stand-ins for human beings. The University of Wisconsin’s Yoshihiro Kawaoka, one of the world’s top influenza experts, then announced hours later that his lab had achieved a similar feat. Given that in some settings H5N1 has killed more than 80 percent of the people that it has infected, presumably as a result of their contact with an ailing bird, Fouchier’s announcement set the scientific community and governments worldwide into conniption fits, with visions of pandemics dancing in their heads. Read more....
This is an interesting and informative piece; it's good that the Cap Times published it.

As interesting and apparently well-researched as this article is, it fails to call attention to the history of accidents associated with research involving dangerous infectious diseases. The level of risk from terrorists using germ warfare seems low when considered against the history of problems that have resulted from things like poor maintenance of rubber seals and ventilation systems in supposedly secure laboratories, workers becoming blasé about biosafety, and plain old mistakes and accidents.

Plum Island

Lyme disease takes its name from Lyme, Connecticut. (I marked Lyme and Plum Island on the map above.) Some people consider it more than coincidental that tick-borne diseases were being studied at USDA's Animal Disease Center on Plum Island, when the disease emerged in the US population. Plum Island, "The Safest Lab in the World" has also been suggested as the US doorway of West Nile virus, and duck enteritis. For much more on this see Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government's Secret Plum Island Laboratory.


The likely cause of the 2007 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom, which resulted in thousands of animals being destroyed and costing billions of pounds, apparently was traced to leaky sewage pipes damaged by tree roots. The laboratory itself maintained good biosafety standards apparently, and still, a breach occurred. (See too 'Safety incidents' at animal lab. May 2011. BBC.) Even after the 2007 disaster, accidents continue. Accidents are just a part of life; they happen, accidentally. There are no absolutely fail-safe systems.

Madison Aerosol Chambers
Faulty Aerosol Chamber Infects Three

NIAID Encourages Use of Leaky Device in Biodefense
Chambers are Located in Nine US States, India, New Zealand, and Northern Ireland

(Austin, 18 April 2005) - A leaky aerosol chamber manufactured by the University of Wisconsin at Madison was responsible for three laboratory tuberculosis infections in a Seattle BSL-3 lab last year. The infections have not been made public until now. Nearly twenty Madison chambers exist across the US and in India, New Zealand, and Northern Ireland. While tuberculosis is not a biological weapons agent, the accident underscores the inherent dangers when working with dangerous disease agents, and the grave safety risks of the US biodefense program, which is encouraging more scientists to deliberately aerosolize bioweapons agents in Madison chambers and similar equipment.
Presumably, the UW-Madison engineers who designed and oversaw the production of these foolproof biosaftey cabinets had absolute trust in them. And yet, many accidents involving very dangerous infectious diseases involved them. Accidents happen. See too: Texas A&M University Violates Federal Law in Biodefense Lab Infection.
The Madison aerosol exposure chamber was developed by the University of Wisconsin in 1970 as a stand-alone system designed for total body exposure of animals as small as mice or as large as rabbits. The chamber, which can hold up to 90 mice, allows researchers to simultaneously infect large numbers of animals. It is essentially a pressure vessel that contains a nebulizer, which is filled with a particular agent that is drawn through the chamber to completely expose the animals. During exposure, the aerosol is contained within the system and a purge cycle following aerosolization reduces lingering agents. The chamber, designed for specialized BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs, is being used today to study tuberculosis, bioterrorism agents, anthrax, and any research that requires the infection of a large number of animals.

As a stand-alone system, the chamber poses potential exposure risks to researchers working with pathogens. (From "Selecting the Most Suitable Aerosolization Equipment." August 01 2007.)

The most rigorous in the world

In recent media coverage of this new-to-the-world most-deadly-flu-ever, UW-Madison's William Mellon, who oversees the university's program for pathogens and toxins, has been saying that biosafety and security at UW-Madison "are among the most rigorous in the world."

I don't know whether Mellon is intentionally lying, but he isn't being entirely forthcoming. And while, if given the chance, the UW-Madison biosafety oversight system might function as well as similar systems elsewhere ("most rigorous in the world" is clearly hyperbole) accidents and mistakes still occur.

Today, biologists can insert genes directly into germs' genetic codes and give them characteristics that do not occur in nature. One of the characteristics that can sometimes be inserted is a resistance to the antibiotics used to control the germ. Research involving the artificial of creation of antibiotic resistant germs is termed a "Major Action" under the NIH Guidelines, and requires specific permission to do so from them.

This makes good sense. A disease easily controlled with a specific antibiotic could quickly become a world-wide scourge if it was no longer able to be controlled. But, in spite of having the "most rigorous in the world", the creation of antibiotic-resistant germs took place on the UW-Madison campus without permission from the NIH and without university approval. Mistakes happen. (See: Scientist, Banned From Lab, Blames U. of Wisconsin for Biosafety Lapse. The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 19, 2010. See too: Say no to new UW-Madison germ lab: Mishaps suggest the facility would put the public at risk. Rick Bogle . Isthmus. 2009.)

Mistakes happen

The claimed benefits from inventing new-to-the-world diseases may or may not be accurate, but the risks are real. The scientist at UW-Madison involved in the invention of the new deadlier-than-ever bird flu is Yoshihiro Kawaoka. Kawaoka knows a lot about viruses, but he has a history of being a little too unconcerned about the risk to his neighbors.

He was working with Ebola in his UW-Madiswon lab, and asked the NIH for permission to reduce the level of biosafety measures he was using.

In 2005 and into the summer of 2006, researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (UW) made and manipulated copies of the entire Ebola virus genome without proper safety precautions. Although federal safety rules required a maximum protection Biosafety Level Four (BSL-4) lab for the research, UW allowed it to proceed at the much less safe and secure BSL-3 level. The rules that UW broke are intended to ensure that agents that are easily transmissible and usually incurable don't escape maximum containment. They prohibit working at BSL-3 with Ebola (and similarly dangerous) virus material that has not been rendered irreversibly incapable of reproducing. UW does not have a BSL-4 lab suitable for handling Ebola virus, which is one of the most dangerous pathogens in the world.

Despite the contrary provisions of the NIH Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant DNA Molecules, permission for UW scientist Yoshihiro Kawaoka to perform the Ebola genome work at BSL-3 was granted by the University of Wisconsin Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC). This significant violation of NIH Guidelines was not detected in a timely manner by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or, apparently, by the CDC Select Agent Program staff that inspect the Kawaoka lab....

... The research was not halted until Kawaoka remarkably repeatedly pushed for permission to lower it to biosafety level two (BSL-2), which is used for diseases that are comparatively mild and easy to treat. Kawaoka's persistence in requesting the even lower BSL-2 standard prompted a UW official to consult with the National Institutes of Health, whereupon it was determined that UW did not have appropriate facilities and should never have approved the studies at all. Ebola Error in Wisconsin Shows Lax Federal Biodefense Oversight: Similar Violations M be Undetected Elsewhere. The Sunshine Project. News Release. 2007
The 1918 Spanish Flu

The country was gearing up to go to war. The lesson had been learned. The main killer in war, at the time, wasn't the enemy, it was disease:
Twice as many men died of disease than of gunshot wounds in the Civil War. Dysentery, measles, small pox, pneumonia, and malaria were the soldier's greatest enemy. The overall poor hygiene in camp, the lack of adequate sanitation facilities, the cold and lack of shelter and suitable clothing, the poor quality of food and water, and the crowded condition of the camps made the typical camp a literal breeding ground for disease. Conditions, and resulting disease, were even worse for Civil War prisoners, who were held in the most miserable of conditions. (From Civil War Medicine.)
Hospital beds were ready; isolation wards at hand. This time, the country would take care of its soldiers and get them back in action as fast as possible. We had learned the lesson: hygiene and quarantine were key.

But then came the 1918 Spanish flu. Before men were sick enough to be diagnosed and isolated, they had already infected others:
The lowest estimate of the pandemic's worldwide death toll is twenty-one million, in a world with a population less than one-third today's. That estimate comes from from a contemporary study of the disease and newspapers have often cited it since, but it is almost certainly wrong. Epidemiologists today estimate that influenza likely caused at least fifty million deaths worldwide, and possibly as many as one hundred million.

...Although the influenza pandemic stretched over two-years, perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a period of twenty-four weeks, and more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December 1918. Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the middle ages killed in a century; it killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty-four years. John M. Barry. The Great Influenza. (2004) pp 4-5 passim
The 1918 Spanish flu is the most deadly disease yet encountered during historical times. The new-to-the-world super-flu invented by Kawaoka and Ron Fouchier is thought by some to be just as deadly, and perhaps even worse. The institutions, labs, and the researchers that already have and those that might might gain access to the recipe for making this potentially species-eliminating new plague are mere humans, possessing all the weaknesses of distraction, hubris, and greed that affect everyone else. No knowledge is so valuable, so important, that its possession trumps such grave risk. The history of biosafety failures -- many more than are mentioned here -- ought to give us pause.

We ought to destroy all the petri dishes, all the records, everything we have that might allow us to move forward with this line of research. The researchers themselves ought to be forced into retirement and banned for life from having any contact with any germ lab. Oversight committees that approved the research ought to be disbanded and new more rational people selected to serve on them. Agencies that approved and funded the research ought to be purged of anyone who voted for or signed off on the approval of funding this absolute insanity.


Rick said...

I started paying attention to the UW's biosafety problems because of my concerns about their cruel experiments on animals. If they allow scientists to use animals to create new-to-the-world deadly diseases, imagine how easily they approve other dead-end experiments using animals. The level of oversight and concern for the public's safety and well being is so low that its no wonder that they allow such transparently hideous experiments using animals to proceed.

Rick said...

"'Why should our tax dollars be used to create new pandemic pathogens?' said Richard Ebright, a chemical biologist at Rutgers University."

The Risks of Dangerous Research

Should research that makes pathogens more deadly or infectious—or other dangerous research—be conducted in the first place?

By Tia Ghose | January 13, 2012