Avian flu has the potential to be a major crisis, and top government and public health officials are planning for the worst. However, almost without exception, they all say the worst-case scenario -- easy transmission from human to human -- is unlikely, but still possible.
Here are two key facts to help put the virus in context:
Right now, this is a virus that primarily affects birds. More than 200 million birds have died or been killed, while 97 humans have died worldwide. Each year in just the United States alone, 36,000 people die from seasonal flu.
In China, the disease is widespread among birds. The World Health Organization has confirmed just 15 infections and 10 deaths among humans in a population of 1.3 billion people -- a rate of one case per 86 million people and one death per 130 million.
But there's an interesting political story brewing. In order to make sense of it, let me quote two recent articles from some excellent reporters. From Nicholas Zamiska, WSJ:
Scientists around the world, racing to discover how avian influenza is spreading and whether it is evolving toward a pandemic strain, face a dilemma: Should they share their interim findings widely, show them only to a select set of peers, or keep them to themselves until they can publish papers, often critical to their careers?
Even as the World Health Organization presses China and other countries to share bird-flu data for the public good, the WHO itself runs a database limited to a select group of scientists and containing a massive trove of data - some 2,300 genetic sequences of the virus, around a third of the world's known sequences, according to two people familiar with the database's contents. Any one of those sequences could hold clues to an effective human vaccine or drugs that could kill the virus, or help scientists determine how great a threat it poses.
Now, a lone Italian researcher has cast a harsh spotlight on the WHO's system, suggesting that it places academic pride over public health - and snubbing it by posting prized bird-flu data in plain view.
Helen Branswell writes:
A leading scientist in the field of genetic sequencing is calling on publicly funded U.S. researchers and research organizations to throw open their collections of H5N1 avian flu viruses to allow others to work toward lessening the pandemic threat the virus poses.
Steven Salzberg wants the U.S. Centers for Disease Control as well as researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health to place their virus sequence data in open-access databanks on an as-processed basis. He hopes such a move would entice scientists elsewhere, as well as governments in H5N1-afflicted countries, to end a pattern of virus hoarding many believe is undermining the world's ability to battle H5N1.
"I think what ought to happen is that the U.S., starting with people funded by NIH and the CDC itself ought to start releasing all of their data and all of their samples -- and lead by example," says Salzberg, director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Maryland.
"Because one complaint I've heard from other scientists in other countries is: `Hey, the CDC in the U.S. doesn't release all their data. So why should we?' And that's a very legitimate complaint."
We need your help to make sure scientists in the US and abroad working on this issue have access to all the data they need. The next effective vaccine may require sequences from Indonesia, China, or who knows where. And George W Bush's NIH and CDC may be part of the problem.
Most of the offenders here are among the most important and dedicated scientists to work on avian influenza. They deserve the high regard in which they are held. But they have spent almost all their professional careers doing academic science in a completely different environment. Today we have almost instant accessibility through the internet and public databases like GenBank. We also have a looming pandemic catastrophe.
It's time for these venerable and worthy old dogs to learn new tricks.
We need to make sure that the publish-or-perish attitude doesn't bring new meaning to the word 'perish'. And since many of the sequences are under the care and direction of the NIH and the CDC, that's another route to take. This link to Flu Wiki has some of the players and whom to contact. They include your senators and representatives.
The US should be leading the way in transparency and open access. Don't let politics get in the way of science. Support Dr. Capua and the other renowned scientists here and abroad in liberating the H5N1 sequences and let them be deposited in GenBank and the other Open Access repositories.
Sure, it's a new and different way to do things. So since when is politics as usual a good thing?
Oh, and before anyone posts about how much money Rummy stands to make, please read this. And thank you all for your support.