Tuesday, January 03, 2012

US Threatens War in the Persian Gulf

Following any invasion attempt or bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities look for $20.00 a gallon gas, economic collapse, martial law, military draft (sacrificing a loved one to machine will buy more time out of camps for family), forced vaccinations

World Socialist
By Peter Symonds

The Obama administration’s bellicose stance towards Iran is setting the stage for a dangerous slide towards war in the Persian Gulf. Having provoked Tehran with legislation for what amounts to an oil embargo, the US is threatening Iran with military action if it retaliates by shutting down the Strait of Hormuz.

    The press immediately added fuel to the flames by backing Washington and vilifying the Iranian regime. An editorial in the New York Times on Thursday fully supported the Obama administration’s threat of military action against any Iranian attempt to block the Persian Gulf. The editorial condemned Iran for “its recklessness and its contempt for international law,” declaring, “This is not a government any country should want to see acquire nuclear weapons.” 

Iran test fires missile they say can deliver
nuclear warhead
Other sections of the media went one step further, giving voice to the clamour in ruling circles in the US and Israel for a pre-emptive attack on Iran to destroy its nuclear and military facilities. The Wall Street Journal editorial seized on the tensions over the Strait of Hormuz to warn of the dangers of an Iranian regime “fortified by a nuclear threat,” concluding that it would be “better to act now to stop Iran.”

    The cynicism is staggering. Having waged wars of aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq and backed the NATO bombing of Libya, the US is now deliberately and recklessly raising tensions in the Persian Gulf by threatening severe penalties against any foreign company doing business with Iran’s central bank, thereby effectively blocking Iranian oil exports. It is hardly surprising that Tehran has reacted to an act of economic war that would collapse its already fragile economy.

Iranian ship to ship missile launch;
capable of taking out carrier
The US and Israel are already engaged in a dirty covert war against Iran’s nuclear and missile programs that involves computer viruses, bombings and assassinations. Any one of these illegal acts of sabotage and murder could have precipitated a slide into military conflict. The US has not only drawn up its own detailed war plans, but is arming its allies in the Gulf against Iran. The White House gave great media prominence on Thursday to a huge $30 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, including 84 of the latest F-15SA fighter aircraft.

    As for the Iranian “nuclear threat,” it is necessary to recall the lies about WMDs that were used to justify the criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003. The modus operandi of the Obama administration, acting with the bipartisan support of Congress, is no different. Dubious and dated “evidence” is being deliberately distorted and magnified, with the complicity of the new International Atomic Energy Agency chief, Yukiya Amano, into claims that Iran is building a nuclear weapon. Tehran’s denials are dismissed out of hand.

Iran said they will close Persian Gulf
if attacked by U.S., Israel
The media is silent on Washington’s rank hypocrisy in demanding an end to Iran’s nuclear programs while fully backing the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East—its ally Israel, which is notorious for its wars of aggression. The glaring double standard only underscores the fact that Obama’s belligerence towards Iran is no more about the “nuclear threat” than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were about “terrorism” and WMDs.

    US aggression against all three countries has been driven by longstanding American ambitions to consolidate its dominance over the region. Iran not only has its own huge oil and gas reserves but forms the strategic bridge between the energy-rich areas of the Middle East and Central Asia. US imperialism has never reconciled itself to the loss of American hegemony in Tehran that followed the overthrow its ally, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979. The Bush administration backed away from more aggressive action against Iran only because the American military was bogged down in quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Now the Obama administration is exploiting the political upheavals in the Middle East to refashion the region in line with its strategic and economic interests. Having ousted Gaddafi in Libya, the US and its allies are applying similar methods to Syria, where oppositional Sunni factions, supported and armed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are exploiting popular discontent to force out the pro-Iranian regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The anti-Assad opposition is now pushing for foreign military intervention along the lines of NATO’s war against Libya.

U.S. carriers will be vulnerable to Iranian
Silkworm missiles
In neighbouring Iraq, the US and its regional allies are fanning sectarian hostility to the Maliki government, which rests on Shiite parties sympathetic to Tehran. Washington is exploiting the Sunni-based Iraqiya coalition as a means for pressuring, or if need be refashioning, the Iraqi government to distance it from Iran. At the same time, the US maintains a studied silence on the repressive measures used by its Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia, to suppress political opposition to their autocratic regimes.

    The central focus of these machinations in the Middle East is the Iranian regime, which is regarded in Washington as the key obstacle to American ambitions—despite its efforts on more than one occasion to reach an accommodation with the US. In 2009, the Obama administration was centrally involved in orchestrating the international cacophony in support of the failed “Green Revolution”—a movement largely composed of more privileged sections of the Iranian upper middle class. Now US military plans are being dusted off.
The guaranteed result of a U.S. attack on Iran
The relentless intensification of tensions always poses the danger of precipitating conflict, even if at a particular point in time it is unintended. A war against Iran, a country that is crucial to the geopolitical calculations not only of the US, but also major rivals such as Russia and China, inevitably risks escalating into a far broader regional and international conflict with catastrophic implications for humanity.

    The driving force behind the eruption of American militarism is the economic decline of the United States, now compounded by the worsening global economic crisis. The only social force capable of preventing the slide into new and more horrific wars is the international working class, through the overthrow of the bankrupt profit system and its outmoded nation-state system and their replacement by a planned world socialist economy.

Peter Symonds is a frequent contributor to Global Research.

Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The 5th Estate.

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This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc.  We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

BREAKING : Southern Chinese Man dies from NEW "NOVEL" H5N1 bird flu made in Japan by Kobe University's Yoshihiro Kawaoka and PhD student Teridah Ernala

They didn't even wait for the ink to dry on the Dutch scam before letting new "novel" H5N1 virus created at Kobe University by madman virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Indonesian PhD virology student Teridah Ernala loose in China

Agency France-Presse

A bus driver in southern China who contracted the bird flu virus died Saturday, health authorities said, in the nation's first reported human case of the deadly disease in 18 months.

    The man, surnamed Chen, died in Shenzhen -- a boomtown that borders Hong Kong where thousands of chickens have already been culled after three birds tested positive for the H5N1 avian influenza virus in mid-December.

  Yoshirio Kawaoka and PhD student virologist Teridah
He developed a fever on December 21 and was taken to hospital four days later, and diagnosed with severe pneumonia, said the health department in Shenzhen, a city of more than 10 million people.

The 39-year-old then tested positive for the H5N1 virus, the department said, adding he had apparently had no direct contact with poultry in the month before he was taken ill, nor had he left the city.

     The H5N1 virus is fatal in humans in about 60 percent of cases.

   However, it does not pass easily among humans, and the World Health Organization says it has never identified a "sustained human-to-human spread" of the virus since it re-emerged in 2003.

    The health department in Guangdong province, where Shenzhen is located, announced Saturday that the bus driver died after his lung, heart and liver functions deteriorated.

Teridah Ernala created "novel" H5N1 in Kobe
"So far, 120 people who have had close contact with him have not presented abnormal symptoms," it said in a statement.

An official at the Shenzhen agriculture and fisheries bureau, surnamed Jiang, told AFP the bus driver had had no contact with birds.

    "So far, we have not received any reports of any birds being infected," he said.

    "It is unclear where the patient got the flu from. We will not make any plans to kill domestic birds unless we know that was the source, or if there is any sign of birds being infected."

    Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have been working closely together since December 21 after live poultry supplies were suspended to the glitzy financial hub following the discovery of infected birds.

    "Novel" H5N1 created at Kobe can now go airborne
A spokesman for the Hong Kong health department said in a statement authorities would heighten their vigilance "and continue to maintain stringent port health measures in connection with this development".

    Health authorities in China have also vowed to stay in "close contact and work together" with Hong Kong and "jointly step up measures in controlling the epidemic", the official Xinhua news agency said.

   China is considered one of the nations most at risk of bird flu epidemics because it has the world's biggest poultry population and many chickens in rural areas are kept close to humans.

    In the last reported human case in China, a young pregnant woman died of bird flu in June 2010 in the central province of Hubei.

   The bus driver's death brought to 27 the number of people who have died in China since 2003, out of 41 reported human cases.

Kawaoka, Terida Enala, Kobe
University responsible
Authorities in Hong Kong have raised the bird flu alert level to "serious" since they discovered infected chickens, resulting in major disruptions to poultry supplies over the busy Christmas period.

The avian influenza virus has killed more than 330 people around the world, with Indonesia the worst-hit country. Most human infections are the result of direct contact with infected birds.

    Scientists fear H5N1 could mutate into a form readily transmissible between humans, with the potential to cause millions of deaths.

    Highlighting those fears, the World Health Organization said on Friday it was "deeply concerned" about research into whether H5N1 could be made more transmissible between humans after mutant strains were produced in labs.

    Two separate research teams -- one in the Netherlands and the other in the United States -- separately found ways to alter the virus H5N1 so it could pass easily between mammals.

 Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The 5th Estate.

Images:  Google royalty free unless otherwise attributed.

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc.  We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

Fears Grow Over Lab - Bred H5N1 "Novel" Flu

It now appears that there have already been intentional releases of the "novel" H5N1 virus engineered by Kawaoka and Teridah Ernala at Kobe University, Japan

By Declan Butler

Scientists call for stricter biosafety measures for dangerous avian-influenza variants

It is a nightmare scenario: a human pandemic caused by the accidental release of a man-made form of the lethal avian influenza virus H5N1.

Yet the risk is all too real. Since September, news has been circulating about two groups of scientists who have reportedly created mutant H5N1 variants that can be transmitted between ferrets merely breathing the same air, generally an indicator that the virus could also spread easily among humans. The work raises the spectre of a disease that spreads as fast as ordinary seasonal flu, but with a fatality rate akin to wild-type H5N1 — an order of magnitude greater than the mortality rate of roughly 2.5% seen during the catastrophic flu pandemic of 1918.

1918 H5N1 pandemic killed millions across the world
Until now, debate about the new variants has focused on whether the research poses too great a security risk to be published — even if partially redacted — a question currently under consideration by the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB).

A number of scientists argue, however, that the NSABB’s deliberations have come far too late. Because further research on the new variants now seems inevitable, a far more important question, they say, is whether the labs that hold samples of the virus — and those who will seek to work with them in the future — have sufficient biosafety protection to make sure it cannot escape.

“This horse is out of the barn,” says Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist and biodefence expert at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. “At this point, it is utterly futile to be discussing restricting the publication of this information,” he adds, pointing out that the results have already been seen by many flu scientists, including referees, and are probably spreading through the flu grapevine faster than a speeding neutrino.

Sources say that one of the studies, led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, has been submitted to Science, and that the other, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been sent to Nature. (Nature’s journalists do not have access to submitted manuscripts or the journal’s confidential deliberations on them.) Fouchier also presented his results in September at the annual European Scientific Working Group on Influenza conference in Malta.

The mutant strains were not born out of a reckless desire to push the boundaries of high-risk science, but to gain a better understanding of the potential for avian H5N1 to mutate into a form that can spread easily in humans through coughing or sneezing. Some virologists have suggested that any genetic changes that made it more transmissible would probably blunt its deadliness. The new work seems to contradict that comforting idea. The studies should also help boost surveillance for similar changes in wild-type strains, and to develop diagnostics, drugs and vaccines.

Both experiments were conducted in labs rated at ‘biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) enhanced’ (see ‘ Safety by degrees’). Such labs require scientists to shower and change clothes when leaving the lab, and include other safety features such as negative air pressure and passing exhaust air through high-efficiency particulate air filters. This should be quite sufficient to provide protection against an accidental release of the virus, some virologists say.

“Current biosafety rules are adequate for safely doing such transmission experiments with H5N1 viruses or any other influenza virus,” says Peter Palese, a virologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Requiring the more stringent protocols of BSL-4 facilities would hamper the research needed to develop countermeasures against an H5N1 pandemic, says Masato Tashiro, a virologist at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Tokyo, because it would limit the number of researchers able to work with the virus. As such, he believes that the work should be done in BSL-3 enhanced facilities.

High Security

But others say that to protect not only the researchers working on the viruses, but also society at large, the new H5N1 variants must be restricted to BSL-4 labs. These labs have far tougher safety and security measures, such as requiring workers to wear positive air pressure suits and undergo more rigorous decontamination; some also have additional security measures, such as video surveillance and bomb-proofing. Corralling this research in BSL-4 facilities would also immediately limit the proliferation of the viruses in labs, because only a few dozen such facilities exist worldwide, says Ebright. Indeed, one regulatory official, who requested anonymity, says that he is most concerned about the H5N1 mutants being handled in BSL-3 labs in countries with weak biosafety cultures or competences.

Deborah Middleton, an H5N1 researcher at the high-containment facilities at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, says that the characteristics of the new variants “fulfil the criteria of a BSL-4 pathogen”, adding that she believes they would probably be handled as such in her institution. Indeed, the original experiments to create the viruses should also have been conducted in a BSL-4 facility, argues Hervé Raoul, director of the Jean Meriéux-INSERM BSL-4 lab in Lyons, France.

Past experience suggests that the risk of the new variant H5N1 escaping from a lab is far from negligible. Over the past decade, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has accidentally infected staff at four high-containment labs in mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore, variously rated as BSL-3 and BSL-4. A US National Research Council report released in September detailed 395 biosafety breaches during work with select agents in the United States between 2003 and 2009 — including seven laboratory-acquired infections — that risked accidental release of dangerous pathogens from high-containment labs.

And the rapid spread of an escaped flu virus would make it more dangerous than other deadly pathogens. “When SARS or BSL-4 agents get out, their potential for transmission on a global basis is quite limited,” says Michael Osterholm, who heads the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis, and is a member of the NSABB. “Influenza presents a very difficult challenge because if it ever were to escape, it is one that would quickly go round the world.”

Fouchier declined to comment on these biosafety issues, saying only that his experiments had been reviewed by authorities in the Netherlands and the United States where “H5N1 virus is a class-3 agent because anti­virals and vaccines are available”. Kawaoka did not respond to interview requests.

Some scientists say that they are looking to the World Health Organization (WHO) to provide timely leadership in this biosafety debate. But Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the WHO in Geneva, Switzerland, says the agency is unable to comment, because it has not yet seen the written studies. Meanwhile, the NSABB has not said when it will publish its advice. In a statement to Nature, the US Department of Agriculture said that it (and the US Department of Health and Human Services) will conduct any appropriate technical review of the new H5N1 variants.

Ebright laments that important questions of biosafety and biosecurity are largely left to the discretion of individual researchers. “In the United States, there is only voluntary oversight for biosafety, and with the exception of the select agents rule, there is no oversight of bio­security,” he says. Given the choice, says Middleton, flu researchers often resist working in higher biocontainment levels simply because they would no longer have the convenience of doing their research in BSL-3 labs at their own institutes, and because working in a BSL-4 lab is inherently more difficult. The situation contrasts sharply with the barrage of legislation to regulate research that involves placing human subjects at risk, notes Ebright, where proposed projects are rigorously reviewed before they can start. “What’s remarkable,” says Ebright, is that for dual-use research of this type on H5N1, “which puts at risk not one individual but potentially hundreds, thousands or millions of individuals, there is no oversight whatsoever."

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc.  We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

Fears About Mutant H5N1 Hinge On Ferrets As Flu Model

5th Estate blows lid on H5N1 mutant-strain release; plainly speaking:  International public has right to know who is trying to kill them and with what

By Robert Roos, News Editor


In the influenza literature, it's a given that ferrets are the best animal model for influenza in humans. They show similar clinical signs of disease, such as fever, coughing, and sneezing, and flu viruses that spread among humans usually spread in ferrets as well.

But if a particular strain of flu, such as H5N1, causes severe illness and spreads easily in ferrets, does that mean it will do the same things in humans? That's a key question raised by two controversial unpublished studies in which ferrets were infected with mutant H5N1 avian flu viruses—and virologists say there's room for doubt about the answer.

This week the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), following advice from the independent National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), recommended that the journals Science and Nature withhold key details of two studies in which mutant H5N1 flu strains gained the ability to spread between ferrets by the airborne route. HHS promised to work on a mechanism for providing the full details to scientists who need them.

One of the studies was done by a team led by Dr. Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University in the Netherlands and was submitted to Science. The other, led by Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin and the University of Tokyo, was submitted to Nature.

The editors of the journals have said they are considering the government recommendation and waiting to see what sort of plan officials propose for sharing the details with experts.

The concern is that publication of the reports could lead to the unleashing, through a laboratory accident or criminal activity, of a highly dangerous virus: an H5N1 strain that could spread quickly from person to person across the globe. H5N1 disease is often lethal in humans, with a fatality rate of about 59% in confirmed cases, but the virus has not gained the ability to spread easily in people. The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed 574 cases of H5N1 since 2003, including 337 deaths.

The NSABB in its deliberations spent considerable time discussing the ferret model of influenza, according to James A. Roth, DVM, PhD, a member of the board and director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Ames.

"The consensus is that the ferret is the most reliable animal model for human influenza," Roth told CIDRAP News. "However, it is not perfect. The results in ferrets are likely to predict the transmissibility and severity of a given influenza virus in humans. Therefore there is a need for caution when an influenza virus with an H5 hemagglutinin is transmissible in ferrets and has the potential to produce morbidity and mortality in humans. Especially considering that the human population has no immunity to H5 hemagglutinin."

H5N1 transmission experiment

Naturally occurring H5N1 viruses act much the same in ferrets as in humans: They cause severe disease but they do not spread efficiently, either by respiratory droplets or direct contact. Fouchier and his colleagues wanted to identify mutations that would make H5N1 spread more easily in ferrets, and by implication in humans as well, so that scientists could be alert for those mutations in wild strains.

Fouchier's team introduced various mutations into H5N1 viruses and found that as few as five single mutations enabled them to bind to human nasal and tracheal cells in lab cultures, according to a Scientific American report of Fouchier's comments at a European meeting in September. But this mutant strain still didn't spread easily in ferrets.

The scientists then allowed the mutant strain to evolve naturally in ferrets, according to the report. They infected one ferret and, after it got sick, used a specimen from it to infect a second ferret. Ten repetitions of this "passaging" process led to an H5N1 strain that could spread among ferrets by air, without direct contact. This mutant strain was said to be just as lethal in the ferrets as its predecessor.

Terida Ernala, Kawaoka, other virologists
at Kobe University
No details about the Kawaoka experiment have been released, but it is said to have yielded similar results to Fouchier's.

Ferret-human parallels
Influenza researchers and published research reports agree that ferrets are the best animal model for studying human flu.

"The ferret is an excellent animal model for human influenza. The virulence and transmissibility of a wide range of influenza viruses are found to be similar between ferrets and humans," said Anice Lowen, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, whose research focuses on flu transmission.

"For example," she commented by e-mail, "human seasonal strains cause mild disease in ferrets and transmit very well from ferret to ferret; whereas wild-type H5N1 strains cause severe (fatal) disease and do not transmit readily. Similarly, low pathogenic avian influenza viruses do not, in general, transmit among either ferrets or humans. Thus, to date, ferrets have been a highly reliable model for human influenza."

Experts also point out that the clinical signs of flu in ferrets are generally similar to those in humans. The typical ones include sneezing, fever, and nasal discharge, says a report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) authors in the 2009 annual publication Advances in Viral Research.

Other parallels, less obvious, have to do with pathophysiology. In both species, the receptors on epithelial cells of the upper airway are marked predominantly by alpha2,6-linked sialic acids, unlike the epithelial cells in birds, which feature alpha2,3-linked sialic acids, according to the Advances article. In addition, avian H5N1 and human H3N2 viruses attach to human and ferret tissues in similar patterns.

Researchers also have found parallels between ferrets and humans in the early response to flu virus infection. Recently a team from the CDC and the University of Quebec studied the local innate immune responses to flu in the upper respiratory tract of ferrets, including evidence of cytokines, chemical messengers that trigger inflammation.

They found a strong temporal correlation between clinical signs, virus shedding, transmission dynamics, and the expression of particular cytokines that are associated with similar clinical signs in humans, according to their report in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

The similarities between ferret and human flu are such that ferrets have been useful in evaluating vaccines for human use and in showing the effects of mutations that confer resistance to antiviral drugs on viral fitness and transmissibility, according to a review published by CDC scientists in September in Disease Models and Mechanisms.

Flu manifestations not all the same

Despite all of these parallels, there are some differences between flu in ferrets and humans, researchers say.

For example, Lowen commented, "Ferrets sneeze frequently when infected with seasonal influenza viruses, whereas humans tend to cough and not to sneeze." Also, she said, "Seasonal influenza in ferrets is perhaps milder than in humans, given that the ferrets in question are naive hosts (analogous to children infected for the first time)."

Another difference is that flu causes neurologic signs more often in ferrets, according to Peter Palese, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, who has been critical of the NSABB move to suppress details of the Fouchier and Kawaoka studies.

"Ferrets have a lot of neurologic symptoms with flu, and that certainly doesn't happen in humans," he said. "There's plenty of evidence that ferrets are a much too sensitive system."

He pointed to a 2007 study in the Journal of Virology, in which ferrets that were inoculated with high doses of H5N1 strains from Vietnam showed neurologic signs before dying. Also, in an earlier study, published in Avian Diseases in 2003, scientists found that ferrets infected with the 1997 strain of H5N1 from the first human cases ever confirmed, in Hong Kong, had neurologic manifestations of the infection.

Another researcher who has studied flu in animals, Daniel R. Perez, PhD, of the University of Maryland, agreed that neurologic manifestations are more common in ferrets than what the literature says about human cases. Perez is an associate professor of virology in the Department of Veterinary Medicine in the university's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and program director for the Avian Influenza Cooperative Agricultural Project there.

Perez said there's a further difference: "In general, I'd say ferrets are more susceptible than humans to H5N1. The manifestations of the disease seem to be a lot more dramatic and noticeable in ferrets than humans. So the human immune system tends to handle the infection better than ferrets."

But he cautioned that not all strains of H5N1 have been tested in ferrets, and the animals are exposed to the virus in controlled laboratory conditions, unlike humans, making comparisons tricky.

He also observed that scientists face some technical limitations in studying the immune response of ferrets: "We are limited in making parallels between what happens in humans and ferrets in terms of the immune responses. We don't have reagents that are ferret-specific that allow us to study immune responses in ferrets the way we've studied them in mice."

Implications unclear

But what, if anything, these differences in clinical manifestations of flu say about the risk represented by the reported mutant H5N1 strains is unclear.

Some virologists say that since ferrets aren't humans, one can't assume that a virus that's highly pathogenic and transmissible in ferrets will have the same qualities in human hosts. Further, they assert that a virus that has been passaged multiple times in an animal, as was reportedly done in Fouchier's experiment, may become attenuated, or less virulent, in humans.

Other experts, however, say that if a flu virus spreads efficiently in ferrets, it will probably spread readily in humans as well. And while passaging a virus in some animal hosts may lead to attenuation in humans, they say, it's not clear if this is necessarily true in the specific case of ferrets.

Questioning assumptions

One virologist who questions the assumption that the mutant H5N1 strains identified by Fouchier and Kawaoka would be highly dangerous is Vincent Racaniello, PhD, Higgins professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University and author of Virology Blog. He has been critical of the move to suppress details of the H5N1 studies.

Racaniello acknowledges that ferrets are considered the best flu model. However, he said in a recent interview, "Ferrets aren't people. . . . You can get some good information out of it [ferret research], but to say it's predicting how flu will be in people is wrong. We just can't say that."

For example, he said that when the 2009 H1N1 virus emerged, a number of research teams studied it in ferrets, and some found it could be lethal, with one study showing a 30% to 50% mortality rate. One scientist concluded that it was a very dangerous virus, he said.

"As we found out subsequently, it was really quite mild in people," Racaniello said. "I just don't see how you can say this [Fouchier's H5N1 virus] is the most dangerous virus ever made when you don't know what happens in people." (To be fair, some public health experts have objected to the description of the 2009 pandemic as mild, because, unlike seasonal flu, the virus disproportionately affected children and nonelderly adults.)

Palese voiced similar views. Asserting that it would be "ridiculous" not to publish the Fouchier and Kawaoka data in full, he said, "I don't think the evidence indicating this is really dangerous in humans is there."

Racaniello also observed that passing a virus through an animal host multiple times is a standard way to potentially reduce its virulence in humans. "That can often result in increased virulence in the animal, but when it goes into humans, it has reduced virulence; it's adapted to the animals. The Sabin polio vaccine was handled this way. The same with the yellow fever vaccine.

"That doesn't predict what H5N1 in ferrets is going to do, but one possibility is that it will become less virulent in people," he said. "What they [Fouchier's team] did was select for transmissibility. You're better adapting it to ferrets, essentially, and that could be accompanied by reduced virulence or transmissibility in humans."

A good chance of transmissibility

Richard Webby, PhD, offered a more nuanced view of the issues in an interview this week. He is director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. Like Racaniello, he said he'd prefer to see the full versions of the Fouchier and Kawaoka studies published, though he acknowledged the concerns about them.

On the transmissibility question, Webby said, "Personally, my feeling is that if a virus transmits readily in a ferret model, there's a pretty good chance it will do the same in naive humans, keeping in mind that the only thing we can't mimic particularly well in ferrets is the preexisting immunity" that humans have by virtue of previous exposures to flu viruses and vaccines. The effects of that population immunity are unpredictable, he said.

"On the other side of the coin, pathogenicity is a little less clear to me, whether something that causes severe disease in ferrets would necessarily cause severe disease in humans," Webby said. "As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out on that."

As for the possible effects of passaging an H5N1 virus in ferrets, he said it's "certainly a possibility" that the virus would become less virulent. "Viruses that have been passaged a lot in mice do tend to lose some of their pathogenicity for some of the [other] models, but I don't think we know enough about what passaging in a ferret would do to human infectivity or virulence."

Lowen voiced a similar view. She concurred that serial passaging of a virus in an animal host is a "classical" way of making a strain that's attenuated for humans. "I would agree that often and probably usually serial passage in an animal host leads to attenuation in humans," she said.

But she added, "Whether this is true of ferrets is not clear, and there may (possibly) be a difference since ferrets are naturally very susceptible to human influenza viruses; in other words, an influenza virus that is highly adapted to growth in humans will generally also show a high fitness in ferrets. Again, whether the reverse is true (ie, a ferret-adapted virus is well adapted to humans) is not clear."

In response to a question, Webby acknowledged another possibility: Since the case-fatality rate for H5N1 illness in humans is astronomical at about 59%, even an attenuated strain could be dangerous. "That would be fair to say. Even an attenuated H5N1 virus would certainly be equivalent to at least the 1957 and 1968 pandemics," he said.

Lowen observed that uncertainty is inescapable when it comes to interpreting the results of animal experiments. "There is always a caveat with any animal model: Animals are not humans and for a given situation we can't know for sure that what is seen in an animal model is predictive of what would be seen in humans until the same experiment is done (eg, by nature) in humans."

See also:

Dec 20 CIDRAP News story "US government urges journals to omit details of H5N1 studies"

Nov 17 CIDRAP News story "H5N1 transmission experiment stirs concern"

September review in Disease Models and Mechanisms on the ferret as a model for human flu

Dec 9 Journal of Infectious Diseases abstract by CDC authors on local immune responses to flu in ferrets

2007 Journal of Virology report noting neurologic signs of H5N1 in ferrets

2003 Avian Diseases report of neurologic signs of H5N1 in mammals

Dec 6 Vincent Racaniello blog post

Nov 28 CIDRAP News item on NSABB review of the two studies 

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The real truth on 9/11 slowly continues to bleed out

Technical experts are mounting major challenges to official U.S. government accounts of how three World Trade Center skyscrapers collapsed in near-freefall after the 9/11 attacks 15 years ago.

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