A mutated strain of the flu has caused the virus to spread to epidemic proportions, the CDC said in a new alert.
Thirty-six states — most in the Midwest — are experiencing flu cases at widespread rates, according to the latest data from the governmental body. Just a handful, like California, Alaska and Hawaii, had local or sporadic flu activity.
A great piece by NPR. UNC (woohoo Tarheels!) researcher Ralph Baric had been investigating MERS (Middle East Respiratory Virus) until a recent government moratorium halting that kind of research.
If this virus mutates so that it spreads easily through the air, millions could die. “It would go around the globe quickly, and this would result in high morbidity and mortality, disruption of the economy, and, in some cases, the collapse of governments,” says Baric.
That’s why researchers want to learn as much as they can about MERS. It’s a type of virus called a coronavirus, which is the special focus of Baric’s lab.
However, a recent decision from the Obama administration has decided to stop govt-funded research on this virus, and also on influenza and SARS.
The Obama administration was concerned about any research that could make the viruses more dangerous, so they wanted to stop and review studies to see if they could make these germs capable of causing more disease or spreading easily through the air.
“I don’t think it’s wise or appropriate for us to create large risks that don’t already exist,” saysDavid Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University.
Ad for for Baric,
Asked if his lab is creating any new forms of these viruses that would be more dangerous for people, Baric replied: “Absolutely not. And we do more genetics in than probably anyone else in the world.”
He says he may not ultimately agree with whatever guidelines are put in place, but “if that’s what it takes to continue the research, then that’s what we’ll do. Ultimately we are responsive to the public.”
What do YOU think? Is this type of research too dangerous? Is the moratorium a good idea? Or is the government overstepping its bounds? Participate in the poll, and let us know!
This is the first CauseScience reply to a question from a reader (via facebook, image above)!! The reader asked what CauseScience makes of the flu vaccine, and posted a BMJ article from Peter Doshi about the influenza vaccine, “Influenza: marketing vaccine by marketing disease.”
First off, as posted on facebook, CauseScience supports the use of all vaccines that have been scientifically proven effective and safe… including the influenza vaccine.
In reply to the BMJ article. I would first direct readers to a blog post from Poxes Blog here, which looks at Doshi’s credentials and addresses many of the points made in the paper. In summary – Doshi, who is not an epidemiologist or statistician, does not seem to understand how estimates of flu deaths are calculated or the nuances of influenza vaccine effectiveness (nasal spray vs. injection). Doshi under-emphasizes the dangers of the flu, and over-emphasizes the risks associated with vaccination, which are not beyond what is normal for a typical vaccine. Unfortunately, vaccines do carry some health risks, but for most people these risks are offset by their effectiveness. Just today on facebook I saw this article posted by a friend, ‘Widower of flu victim urges people to get flu shots.’ Clearly the flu can kill.
The other arguments made by Doshi are standard fare for anti-vaccine activists. The familiar claims that vaccines are not effective and are overly dangerous. However, to support these arguments they cherry pick data, use correlation to denote causation, and ignore broader swings in data and focus on single points. On mortality, Doshi makes the tired claim that mortality decreased prior to widespread vaccination, while ignoring the facts that mortality can decrease in that period due to better healthcare, sanitation, nutrition etc. However, incidence of vaccine preventable disease in the same period would show a dramatic reduction with implementation of vaccination. In addition, when vaccine rates drop, disease incidence increases, more supportive evidence of the effectiveness of vaccines.
While Doshi’s article does perhaps have points about improving vaccine effectiveness and reporting, it is hard to take it seriously with so much wrong, misleading, anti-vaccination blather. Unfortunately this article has made the anti-vaccine rounds many many times since it was published in 2013.
According to Rep Allen West, Ebola is a ‘really bad flu bug.’ If that’s true, maybe he would be willing to demonstrate his claims by volunteering to be infected. Oh wait, simple scientific facts prove him completely wrong. First of all, the Ebola virus is very very different in terms of the type of virus it is, and also in the symptoms it causes. The fatality rate of Ebola is somewhere between 50-90% (WHO). That means more than half of people who show symptoms will die from the virus. Even for a pandemic flu, like the infamous Spanish flu of 1918, the fatality rate was only 2%. Most flu pandemics and epidemics have fatality rates considerable below 0.5%. Last I checked, 50-90% fatality is a hell of a lot more than 2% fatality. So I would say Mr. West should do some fact-checking next time before he completely mischaracterizes a virus and its impact.
Seen by CauseScience on Maddow blog, along with a number of other political statements on Ebola!
You may have seen some inflammatory news articles about recent work from Yoshihiro Kawaoka’s lab in Madison, Wisconsin that made a 1918 Spanish Flu-like virus. Like this one from the Guardian by Ian Sample. While it is certainly important to draw attention to controversial research that could impact public health, this article seems a little bit like sensationalistic fear-mongering. Luckily, the LAST paragraph addresses some of the concerns:
Carole Heilman, director of microbiology and infectious diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Niaid) in the US, said: “This study was conducted as part of a research project on understanding the molecular mechanisms of virulence of the 1918 influenza virus. NIH peer review determined that the research was scientifically meritorious. It was also determined that the information gained had the potential to help public health agencies in their assessment of circulating and newly emerging strains. In addition, NIH determined that all the research was being done under appropriate biosafety conditions and with appropriate risk mitigation measures.”
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Yoshihiro Kawaoka has been in the news for working on infectious viruses. The work was done in a lab with Biosafety Level 3-agriculture (BSL-3A), which is close to the highest security level (just a half step below BSL-4).
Wendy Barclay (an influenza virologist) has written a great article defending Kawaoka’s research for the Conversation. She points out some reasons not to fear the work being done.
Reassuringly, the particular virus created by Kawaoka and colleagues was recognised by antibodies from people vaccinated against the modern day 2009 pandemic influenza. This suggests that if it were to escape the lab it would not be good at infecting and spreading in people as most of us already have that type of antibody as a result of being vaccinated or naturally infected since 2009.
Dr. Barclay also makes sure to highlight that this is not the work of some independent mad-scientist. All of the work being done had to be justified and approved by NIH, including proper precautionary measures taken for the research.
This type of knowledge forms part of the risk assessment that scientists perform before they begin this type of work and which is updated as the experiment proceeds.
She also explains why work like this is crucial for public health.
If we want to understand how to deal with viruses that are both highly virulent and transmissible, we need to have such a virus to work with. This should be done by experts under very highly contained conditions such as those used in Wisconsin in the Kawaoka labs.
Lastly, she acknowledges that although the experiments were justified, were beneficial, and were not a huge risk to public health, that informed debate about this type of research is necessary and should guide what type of research is done.
Nonetheless, scientists do not have a licence to create at will any virus they dream up – each one needs to be risk assessed individually and the reasons for doing the experiment should be clear. And we should of course continue with an informed debate on where the limits of our scientific endeavours should lie not just for research with flu viruses but with other pathogens and scientific advances as well.
Thank you Wendy Barclay and the Conversation for putting out a great article that truly addresses this research with a knowledgeable level head!
Many hospital systems across the US have mandated healthcare workers receive the flu vaccine each year in an attempt to protect patients, visitors, and other healthcare workers (Johns Hopkins has a great FAQ here). Obviously this has led to a number of law suits and issues (nurse fired for refusing vaccine). This week, an abstract being presented at the 41st annual Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology conference has found a relationship between the number of vaccinated healthcare workers and the rate of influenza-like illnesses (More below and here). More studies like this, and studies on hospitals with mandatory flu vaccinations, are important in proving the efficacy of these programs. Personally, given this study and its implications, I would definitely prefer to be treated at a hospital with mandatory vaccinations. How about you?
“This study suggests that there is a strong connection between how many healthcare personnel are vaccinated against the flu and how many cases of influenza-like illnesses are reported in the community,” said James F. Marx, PhD, RN, CIC, investigator and founder of Broad Street Solutions, an infection prevention consultancy. “More research would be helpful to further understand the impact of vaccinating healthcare workers on community influenza rates.”
“According to Marx, if 90 percent of California healthcare personnel were vaccinated — the goal set by the federal government’s Healthy People 2020 initiative — there would be about 30,000 fewer cases of influenza-like illness in California.”