Prominent Virologists Want U.S. Advisory Board to Take a Second Look at Controversial Flu Papers

A group of prominent researchers is asking a U.S. government biosecurity advisory board to reconsider its controversial recommendation that two research teams omit key details from papers in press at Science and Nature. The controversy "warrants pause and a rational discussion of the scientific facts," 18 prominent researchers from U.S. universities wrote to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) on 18 January.

The signers include several of the most outspoken critics of the NSABB's late December recommendation, including virologists Peter Palese and Adolfo García-Sastre of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Also on the list is Eckard Wimmer of Stony Brook University in New York, the author of a controversial 2002 study that demonstrated how to assemble a synthetic polio virus, and Vincent R. Racaniello of Columbia University, who leads the popular Virology Blog.

NSABB has said it recommended that the two journals withhold key details from the studies because knowledge of those details, in the wrong hands, could make the H5N1 avian flu strain even more dangerous. The current strain is known to have killed about 60% of the people with documented infections.

The letter writers, however, argue those fears are overblown.

"Realistically, there is no direct evidence that the specific viruses would even cause disease in humans (other than in cases when mega-amounts are inhaled) or transmit between humans," they write. "The oft-cited claim that influenza H5N1 infection is highly lethal is not justified: though a number of deaths have been reported, the total number of human infections that led to these deaths is not known and may well be higher than currently appreciated."

"The findings reported in the manuscripts are likely to advance influenza research and we argue that it is unreasonable to suggest that their publication will speed the development of a biologic weapon," they add. "The time to generation of a virus by de novo engineering from raw sequence data is probably longer than the age-old method of virus passage in mammals/mammalian cells."

They also argue that current oversight procedures are adequate to ensure public safety. "The current system has adequate checkpoints, including those that brought this issue to public consideration. In this instance, we favor proceeding with appropriately executed and contained ferret (and other animal) studies, so as to enable long term understanding of the correlation with human influenza spread (if any). The latter would allow us to test and develop safer influenza vaccines."

The letter concludes with a call for the NSABB "to take into account the broad and informed discussion in the scientific community on these issues" before taking any final action.

The signers of the letter were:

  • Francis V. Chisari (The Scripps Research Institute)
  • Richard Compans (Emory University)
  • Peter Doherty (St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, University of Melbourne)
  • Adolfo García-Sastre (Mount Sinai School of Medicine)
  • Stephen P. Goff (HHMI, Columbia University)
  • Diane E. Griffin (Johns Hopkins University)
  • Elliott D. Kieff (Harvard University)
  • Robert Krug (University of Texas, Austin)
  • Robert A. Lamb (HHMI, Northwestern University)
  • Michael B. A. Oldstone (The Scripps Research Institute)
  • Peter Palese (Mount Sinai School of Medicine)
  • Vincent R. Racaniello (Columbia University)
  • Bernard Roizman (University of Chicago)
  • Aaron J. Shatkin (Rutgers University)
  • Thomas E. Shenk (Princeton University)
  • Peter K. Vogt (The Scripps Research Institute)
  • Eckard Wimmer (Stony Brook University)