NEWS SCAN: H5N1 fight and science credibility, WHO report on H5N1 meeting, avian flu outbreaks, more sprout-linked E coli cases

Mar 9, 2012

Some fear claims made in H5N1 fight may hurt credibility of flu research
As the controversy over two studies involving lab-derived H5N1 viruses continues, some influenza researchers are worried that various arguments used to push for full publication of the studies may be hurting the credibility of the field, according to a Canadian Press (CP) report published today. The studies involved H5N1 viruses with increased transmissibility in ferrets. Out of biosecurity concerns, a US biosecurity advisory board recommended in December that key details of the studies be withheld from publication. Some researchers are uneasy about claims by a small group of flu scientists that the H5N1 virus isn't as dangerous as people have long been led to believe, according to the CP story. It cites in particular the argument made by virologist Dr. Peter Palese of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City that the 59% case-fatality rate listed by the World Health Organization is "orders of magnitude" too high. He has asserted that many mild H5N1 cases have gone undetected, and therefore the real case-fatality rate is much lower, though seroprevalence studies have suggested very few undetected cases. But claiming that H5N1 isn't dangerous could inflict an "unintended wound" on flu research, some say. Dr. John Treanor, a flu expert at the University of Rochester, told the CP, "If you really believe that the intrinsic lethality of the H5 viruses has been overestimated to such a degree that actually H5 infections are no more serious than regular flu . . . why are you spending all this money studying it? Similarly, Dr. Nancy Cox, head of the influenza division at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), commented, "There is fertile ground for the sort of belief that there's been hype of H5N1's severity and the potential for a severe pandemic to occur."
Mar 9 CP story

WHO issues technical report on February meeting on H5N1 research
The World Health Organization (WHO) has published a technical report on the Feb 16-17 meeting at which influenza experts and public health officials discussed the two controversial unpublished studies describing lab-derived H5N1 viruses with increased transmissibility in ferrets. The five-page report offers no surprises but gives a few more details than were provided in a press conference and a press release issued after the meeting. At that point the WHO said a majority of participants had agreed that a current 60-day moratorium on research involving lab-derived H5N1 viruses should continue, that a public education campaign about the importance of the research should be launched, that biosafety and biosecurity issues raised by the research should be reviewed, and that the two studies should be published in full at a later date—contrary to the December recommendation from the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. Among other details, the new technical report says the sets of mutations that were associated with increased transmissibility differed between the two studies. It describes the studies as "proof-of-principle experiments" that "were not designed to elucidate the pathogenciity or degree of transmissibility" of the lab-modified viruses. The report also states, "It was not believed that any purpose would be served by destroying these laboratory modified viruses, given their utility for future research and public health surveillance."
WHO technical report
Feb 17 CIDRAP News story on the WHO meeting

Israel, Bhutan, and Hong Kong report H5N1 outbreaks
Israel's agriculture ministry today announced that H5N1 avian flu outbreaks have been detected at two turkey farms in Hadarom , also known as the country's Southern District, according to a report to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). The outbreaks began on Mar 7, striking a facility near Beersheva that housed 12-week-old turkeys and another near Ashkelon where 8-week-old turkeys were being raised. The virus killed 10,500 of 51,000 susceptible birds, and the remaining ones were culled to control the spread of the disease. An investigation is ongoing, and so far the source of the virus is unknown. Israel's last H5N1 outbreak was reported in April 2011. In other developments, officials in Bhutan announced another H5N1 outbreak in backyard poultry in Chhukha district, according to a report to the OIE today. The report is the country's sixth of the year, and all of the outbreaks have occurred in the same district. Elsewhere, veterinary officials in Hong Kong said in an OIE report that they have detected H5N1 in two more wild birds that were found dead, collected, and tested. One was a black-headed gull, a common winter visitor to the area, and the other was a peregrine falcon, a rare winter visitor.
Mar 9 OIE report on Israeli outbreaks
Mar 9 OIE report on Bhutan outbreak
Mar 9 OIE report on Hong Kong H5N1 findings

E coli outbreak tied to Jimmy John's sprouts grows by 11 cases
The case count in the ongoing multistate Escherichia coli O26 outbreak has nearly doubled to 25 since the last report Feb 24. In an update yesterday, the CDC reported 11 new cases in Alabama, Michigan, and Ohio. Cases have occurred in eight states; six (25%) of the 24 patients for whom information is available have required hospitalization. The large majority (21; 87%) reported eating sprouts at Jimmy John's sandwich shops within 7 days before illness onset. Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) has not developed in any cases, and no deaths have occurred.
Mar 8 CDC notice
Feb 15 CIDRAP News story on initial outbreak notice

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