Wednesday, January 18, 2012

WHO concerned that H5N1 flu research findings could be used by bio-terrorists

( – The World Health Organization is concerned about the “potential negative consequences” that could stem from bioterrorists manipulating research being conducted by several institutions on whether changes in the H5N1 influenza virus could result in more human-to-human transmissions.

“H5N1 influenza viruses are a significant health risk to people for several reasons. Although this type of influenza does not infect humans often, when it does, approximately 60% of those infected die,” the statement said.

It continued: “In addition, because these viruses can cause such severe illness in people, scientists are especially concerned that this type of influenza could one day mutate so it spreads easily between people and causes a very serious influenza pandemic.”

The WHO noted that research which sheds lights on these viruses and mitigate risks to the public is “a scientific and public health initiative” and must continue.

WHO maintains that while such research must continue to increase public knowledge, it also holds that such research has risks.

“Therefore such research should be done only after all important public health risks and benefits have been identified and reviewed, and it is certain that the necessary protections to minimize the potential for negative consequences are in place,” the statement said.

The research has caused concern within the WHO because of its potential to undermine the new Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) framework adopted by all WHO Member States.

The PIP framework, which came into effect in May 2011, is a guide “to the sharing of influenza viruses with pandemic potential and the resulting benefits,” or, in other words, the sharing physical samples of influenza virus strains and isolates.

Before the PIP framework came into effect and before negotiations over the framework began, scientists who led studies received their virus samples from the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance Network (GISN).

The new requirement in the PIP framework requires laboratories that received physical samples of influenza viruses with pandemic potential through the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System to “collaborate with, and appropriately acknowledge, scientists in countries where the virus originated when initiating research.”

WHO thinks it’s “critically important” that scientists who do research with influenza viruses abide by the new requirements.

WHO communications official Donna Eberwine-Villagran said that both bio-terrorists getting a hold of information in the studies and the H5N1 strain developing into something more transmissible among humans are real potential risks in this type of research but that neither one concerns WHO more than the other.

“We wouldn’t weigh one against the other,” the WHO official said.

She also said that WHO does not know if terrorists even have the capacity to utilize the research and added that WHO had no group of terrorists in mind when they released the statement in late December.

While there have been confirmed cases that appear to have involved limited human-to-human transmission of the virus, Eberwine-Villagran said that to WHO’s knowledge none of these have been used in a bio-terror attack.

The statement does not mention what institutions are conducting studies on H5N1.

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