ECDC says 'gain-of-function' research needs more evaluation

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said this week that the safety of gain-of-function (GOF) studies like a recent one involving the generation of a 1918-like influenza virus merits more public discussion, given the obligation of researchers to "first do no harm."

The statement specifically cited the study last month in Cell Host & Microbe in which scientists used genes found in currently circulating avian flu viruses to create a virus related to the 1918 pandemic virus.

The researchers, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, DVM, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin, said the virus they generated was more pathogenic in mice and ferrets than a natural avian flu virus, but not as pathogenic as the 1918 virus itself (which was recreated in 2005). Their finding, they concluded, suggested that a 1918-like virus could emerge from the existing avian flu gene pool.

The ECDC said the study confirms the ability of recombinant technology to create pathogenic viruses not currently found in nature. Such work poses a risk both to lab workers and to the public, and recent incidents point up the risk of lab accidents and leaks, the agency said in an allusion to lapses at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) involving Bacillus anthracis and the H5N1 virus.

Researchers should be free to use the latest technologies so long as they follow good ethical and biosafety practices, the statement added, but the decision to fund GOF studies on flu viruses has stirred controversy about the mechanisms in place to ensure sound, independent assessment of risks and benefits.

The public health perspective has so far been "limited" in the critical review of such funding decisions, including those on studies aiming to create potential pandemic pathogens, the ECDC said, adding, "Very often the research groups justify their research agenda with pandemic preparedness and better understanding of the avian influenza viruses without further specifying how exactly the results may improve the preparedness plans.

"It is important to ask what this type of result adds to the field of pandemic influenza preparedness and how the prediction of efficacy of influenza vaccines or antivirals against influenza viruses is improved based on these results. Furthermore, it is pertinent to ask for justification of the methods, and if any of those could be replaced by safer experiments. "

The agency said no European-level forum for public health discussion of dual-use research of concern exists as yet. "ECDC advocates for open discussion about studies where potential pandemic threats are created," the statement concluded.
Jul 16 ECDC statement
Related Jun 11 CIDRAP News item
Related Jul 3 CIDRAP News story


HIV researchers, WHO staffer die in Malaysia Airlines disaster

Many members of the international HIV research community, including world-renowned Joep Lange, MD, PhD, of the Netherlands, died when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a missile over Ukraine yesterday, according to media reports.

The researchers were bound for the International AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia, which begins this weekend, the Washington Post reported. Their plane was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Also among the crash victims was Glenn Thomas, a member of the World Health Organization's (WHO's) Department of Communications, who also was on his way to the AIDS conference, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said in a statement today.

The Post reported that Lange had been a pioneer in AIDS research since the epidemic's early days and "had worked tirelessly, his friends and colleagues said, to improve access to life-saving drugs in impoverished corners of the globe." He was a past president of the International AIDS Society.

The society confirmed that "a number of colleagues and friends" who were headed for the conference were on the plane, the story said.

Hartl said Thomas had worked for the WHO for more than a decade and spent much of that time providing communications support to the TB Department. He had been on the media team since 2012.

"Glenn will be remembered for his ready laugh and his passion for public health," Hartl wrote.
Jul 18 Washington Post story
Jul 18 Nature story about Lange
Jul 18 WHO statement about Thomas


US chia powder Salmonella outbreak grows to 25 cases

The number of US cases of salmonellosis tied to sprouted chia powder rose by 4 in the past month, to 25 in 14 states, the CDC said in an update yesterday.

Texas reported 2 of the new cases, and Rhode Island and New York each had 1. Texas and Rhode Island had previously not been affected by the outbreak, which has been linked to Organic Traditions Sprouted Chia Seed Powder.

Illness-onset dates range from Jan 21 to Jun 21, and patients' ages vary from 1 to 81 years, with a median age of 45 years. Among 20 patients with available information, 3 (15%) were hospitalized. The outbreak involves three Salmonella strains: Newport (16 cases), Hartford (7), and Oranienburg (2).

The CDC said the recalled chia powder products, which were available in stores nationwide and online, have a long shelf life and may still be in people's homes, so further illnesses may occur.

Canada has also been affected by the outbreak. In its most recent update, on Jun 27, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) reported 59 cases in four provinces.
Jul 17 CDC update
Jun 27 PHAC


Equatorial Guinea reports 5 polio cases

Equatorial Guinea has reported five recent infections with wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1), the WHO reported yesterday. The patients had an onset of paralysis ranging from Jan 28 to May 3.

Genetic sequencing indicates that the cases are connected to an ongoing outbreak in neighboring Cameroon.

Equatorial Guinea's health ministry has implemented an emergency action plan to respond to the outbreak, the WHO said. Three nationwide polio vaccination campaigns were conducted in April and May, and two more are planned for this month and August.

The WHO also said in the statement that no further WPV1 has been detected in Brazilian sewage samples since the agency announced on Jun 25 that the virus was detected in samples at Viracopos International Airport in Sao Paulo state.
Jul 17 WHO statement

In related news, an editorial this week in Nature says that, despite wide-ranging recent setbacks involving polio cases, global eradication can still be achieved through a redoubling of efforts.

"The global-eradication effort—despite some shortcomings—has a good track record of successfully fighting sporadic flare-ups," Nature editors wrote. "There is every reason to believe that the current spate of outbreaks will be contained (although war-torn Syria could remain problematic).

"The big challenge is to conquer the virus in the endemic countries that are fuelling exports of the disease—and above all in Pakistan." The editorial cited a recent report by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which called the situation in Pakistan "dire."

The Nature editors also note societal resistance to vaccination as a remaining hurdle.
Jul 16 Nature editorial

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