Nature video: Debating research on avian influenza H5N1 virus

Several panelists from the recent influenza H5N1 dual-use forum at the New York Academy of Sciences spoke with Brendan Maher of Nature News to discuss their position. Participants in this video include Laurie Garrett, Michael Osterholm, Ian Lipkin, Vincent Racaniello, and Veronique Kiermer.

Update: The New York Academy of Sciences has posted video of the full two hour panel discussion.

17 thoughts on “Nature video: Debating research on avian influenza H5N1 virus”

  1. I don’t want to be a pain the arse, but I really think you should wear a shirt and tie if you’re going to be interviewed on is more-or-less widely diffused medium, or  indeed if you want to be convincing in a meeting. Michael Osterholm looks way more serious and official than you do, VR, and this kind of thing can have an influence on how well your message gets across.



  2. I ran your comment by Rich Condit and Alan Dove and they agree with you. This is too bad because I don’t want anything to get in the way of sending a strong message to the public from scientists. So now the question is: when should I wear a tie, whenever I’m on video? Does that include TWiV and TWiM video?  For example, a Japanese TV station interviewed me at my office recently for broadcast in that country – should I keep a tie in my office for such occasions?

  3. Well, I don’t know about keeping a tie in the office, but if I was going to interviewed for TV, I would definitely dress up for the occasion.

    On the other hand, TWiV and TWiM videos are more relaxed, and perhaps kind of “unofficial”, so I would just go for normal clothes .

    Who knows, maybe I’ve become hypersensitive to this issue, having just watched “Crazy Stupid Love” last weekend.

  4. While one may or may not agree with the NSABB’s cost/benefit analysis in this case, no one forces research scientists to take NIH money.  If you play the public funding game, you have to play by the public’s rules.  More importantly, you have to accept that their representatives are entitled to make rules, including ones that might be overprotective of the public safety in your judgment. 
    I am very sympathetic to Vince’s argument that since it is impossible to know whence the next breakthrough will come, openly available research results are desirable.

    But the longstanding reliance on public funding of research has seemed to obscure for many that having the rest of us pay for your work is a privilege, not a right.   In the scheme of things, this episode is only a gentle reminder of that.  Scientists may be in store for a much ruder awakening.  There are serious people – not just knuckle-dragging troglodytes — who would consider dispensing with the NIH altogether, and leave non-profit research funding to the Rockefellers, Gates and Buffetts of this world.  I frankly don’t know if in the long run that would be a bad or good thing, but researchers who take a dismissive attitude toward their benefactors’ concerns may be hastening the day of reckoning.

  5. You’re talking as if the scientists in this country who oppose the decisions of the NSABB are not members of the public.

    People go against their representatives all the time. It is the duty of those representatives to listen to the opinion of the experts when they make a decision on a subject. And the so called experts on biosecurity are not the main experts that need to be listened to in this case. This is a study about molecular virology and pathogenesis. As made obvious by the comments of Mike Osterholm and Laurie Garrett, some people who talk on this subject have no idea how to translate evidence from animal models to humans.

    NSABB doesn’t make rules, or policies. It’s up to the journal to publish this data, and not every journal is located in the US.

  6. I now had the opportunity to
    watch the whole duscussion, so first of all, many thanks Prof. Racaniello for
    providing the link.

    I have the
    feeling that the arguments brought forward against publishing the results of
    both studies (or rather, against doing this research at all) sometimes just
    don`t fit the reasoning. For example, Dr. Osterholm mentioned him having no
    fear of releasing smallpox, since there are effective countermeasures like
    vaccination. Besides the fact, that i would suppose there are at the moment rather
    few people that actually have been been vaccinated against this virus, i think,
    one has to consider, that vaccination and anti-viral drugs are only available
    because of exactly this kind of research that now is about to get censored.

    In addition,
    it is quite often mentioned, that many poeple could be killed if this virus
    would be set free. However, one might ask, how many people will get killed if
    nature “invents” such a virus on its own, but we didn`t know, because when
    screening for naturaly occuring highly pathogenic flu viruses, we didn`t know
    what kind of mutations to look for? I think this is what these studies might
    teach us, therefore greatly enhancing the ability to find these emerging
    mutants in time and preventing casualties, rather than causing them.

    from my point of view, i must agree that there is actually no international discussion
    on the whole topic. Maybe the case is different in the US, but here in Europe the
    only news about the whole story are newspaper articles (which often can only be
    described as “fearmongering” and are seldom very well researched) and
    contributions on the internet, just like in this blog. Since this really is an
    issue that has to be adressed by the whole scientific community, i don`t think
    having the whole argument between only relativley few scientists and an
    american government agency helps the case. Of course, i might be mistaken and
    there is a raging debate on this topic, but i think informing the public on
    this debate is eminently necessary. Also, i wonder, what will happen, if the
    moratorium is over? Should one extend it indefinitley or just go on with the
    research? I have the feeling that an international, public and well reasoned
    debatte involving scientist and most importantly other people that know what
    they are talking about would be really what is necessary to sort these things

    Anyways, this is a really great
    blog, many, many thanks to Prof. Racaniello for spending so much of his
    valuable time on creating it! Thanks you a lot and keep up the good job.

    P.S.: i would also like to break
    a lance for Prof Racaniello: to me you beeing the only one not wearing a suit
    and a tie made you rather more convincing and made stand out of the masses of
    other participants (besides your well-reasoned arguments, of course). In my opinion,
    this did not negativley influence how your message got transfered.

  7. Here are a few observations to add to the pot: 


    The stark contrast of emotion. Laurie, Arturo and Mike were highly
    charged, bordering on hostile at times. On the other hand, their clear
    opponents, Peter and Vince were much more cool and collected. Is it not obvious
    to everyone that the debate tactics assumed by team NSABB relied heavily on
    emotional draw, leaving very little room for reasonable discussion? There was
    some talk of science early on, though I would have liked to see a more thorough
    explanation of why the two sides so vehemently disagree with one another about
    serology/relevance of animal models (I imagine, perhaps, this is fodder for a
    different venue). To me, these seem like the most important issues to flesh out! If the virus isn’t super deadly and there is no risk of transmission, then this becomes a non issue. FYI I am strongly aligned with Peter and Vince on their approach
    to this issue. However, I think the aura given off by Peter and Vince has more
    to do than just Vince sans tie. There has been extensive investigation into
    whether people, in general, respond to logical argument and presentation.
    Sadly, most do not, and it is unfortunate that pure reason and sound judgment can
    be overshadowed by pomp and murky pseudologic.


    Along these lines, I thought it was terrible the way Mike overtly
    dissed Peter. I cringed every time I heard the NSABB team “back up” their arguments
    with statements sounding something like: “Some of the most renowned people
    around the world, almost all the experts, with all their awards, think so and
    so, therefore trust us on this one”. Although it probably would have been inappropriate, I
    can just imagine Vince or Peter yelling at Osterholm when he subtly diminished their awesome scientific contributions and accomplishments. Yes, accolades do indicate good work, but in this case are irrelevant because “experts” are taking both sides on the topic. At the risk of paraphrasing a well-known scientist, it doesn’t matter who says it, if the data don’t support the conclusion, it is wrong. 


    Also, I disliked the repeated argument that “We spent a lot
    of time thinking about this and talking to people, therefore we are right”. Listen,
    it doesn’t matter how many hours it took you to think about this problem and
    come to a conclusion. It’s irrelevant. If it takes me 2 hours to solve a
    problem, and if it takes you 5 minutes, am I somehow more
    qualified to solve the problem because it took me longer? What if I talked to a
    lot of people to get the answer, does that make any difference at all? Also, many
    of the people trying to solve this dilemma have a collective life experience in
    virology, studying this stuff day-in and day-out. That’s a hell of a lot of
    hours of thinking about this kind of stuff, and this isn’t the first
    time they’ve thought about these issues. So again, the “we spent a lot of time
    thinking about this” train of thought is just garbage.

  8. It is very hard to respond to the NSABB mentality with Science and Facts. Unfortunately, Terror and theoretical what ifs can’t be argued with rationality.  Unless the scientific community comes together and rebuts the NSABB fear mongering, it will win.

  9. Wow. Crazy Stupid Love is a horrible movie. The scene makes a point though.

    Other than that, I agree with Dorian on the tie and looking sharp for television or debates where you want to make a statement or look legit, but in the office or podcast videos, I wouldn’t  enforce it.

    Thanks for doing what you do!!!!!! It means so much to so many other people including myself. 

  10.  the difference to smallpox is, that flu can go pandemic,
    infecting >10% of the world population in a year.
    A smallpox outbreak these days would be slow spreading
    and local, agreed ?

  11. I feel that this was a ritualized,ceremonialized,institutionalized event
    withdoing a discussion for the event’s sake, not really trying to
    resolvethe issue, to come to a consensus, a conclusion.This would have
    involved that they evaluate and weight the argumentsinstead of just listing
    new ones or new aspects to existing ones.

    It looks different when you discuss with good friends trying hard to
    resolve an issue.

    Like a chessproblem or a math-theorem. You feel that people don’t just

    to present their view but really dig into the problem. Getting and refuting

    ideas, changing position on subproblems …


    reminds me to the 1976 swineflu discussion and “Alexander questions”





    why internet forum discussion is better:


    ritualized,ceremonializedonly one speaks at a timeno feedback, no
    direct discussion of issues (only after speech finished)no links, no
    charts,tables,graphsno correctionsmust sit at the table, no
    computers,internet,  can’t go to toilet,sneeze,cough,pork the finger in the
    nose etc.  tie or not tie, mustn’t be late, must finish when
    requested must come to New York instead of doing it relaxed at home with
    files, secretaries, books available


      must choose words instantaneouslyno transcriptsmust speak when
    it’s their turn, address the issues in context



  12. I agree with you that nowadays an outbreak would be local. However, in the past times, smallpox indeed was pandemic and a great burden to public health, having an impact on a high percentage of the worlds population, although spread was not as fast as with influenza.

    However, that is not the point i wanted to make. An outbreak these days would stay local, because there are countermeasures and vaccines available, which are a result of many, many hours of carefull research. Such research is now beeing held back, therefore leading to a delay in the development of countermeasures and (even more critical) inhibiting the possibility to carefully look for the appearance of natural H5N1 variants showing mutations like these observed with the laboratory-created virus, simply because researchers don`t know what these mutants are, because the publication of exactly these data is prohibited.

  13. I do not see how knowing these mutations would advance vaccine
    or antivirals. First flu-vaccine is not very effective despite
    decades of research and many available sequences. Had flu-vaccine
    ever stopped a flu-wave, even seasonal ?
    Second,are those mutations in antigenically important regions ?
    Seems unlikely.Fouchier should know.
    And if vax-escape(from Fouchier-unmutated H5) is so easy,
    then what is the vax worth anyway.
    Third,we have so many different H5 around, why should just
    the Fouchier-variant go pandemic ?
    Start with another H5N1 and do exactly the same steps
    and come up with another ferret-transmissable H5N1 (?!)

  14. Maybe i didn`t make myself clear, if that is the case, i apologize. So, let me explain what i wanted to say.

    The groups of Fouchier and Kawaoka apparently created H5N1 mutants which give the respective virus the availability to be

    1) transmitted amongst ferrets and

    2) beeing highly pathogenic, ie. killing the ferrets.

    At least that`s what one can draw from the currently available “data” about these papers. That implies, that the viruses they created contain mutations which give the virus the above mentioned traits. Knowing these mutatons gives us on the other hand the possibility to screen for the appearance of viruses carying these mutations out there in the wild. Once these mutations appear, we know that there is a highly pathogenic virus out there and that maybe gives us the possibility to react appropriately in time. Besides that, it is still unclear, which exact combination of mutations leads to a “switch” from an avian influenza virus to a highly pathogenic human-transmittable virus. Besides adding greatly to our general knowledge, if we would know, that certain mutations are neccesary for this process, i.e. mutations within the polymerase or the NS1 protein of influenza virus, one would know that antivirals targeting these proteins are necessary, and with the virus Fouchier et al created, one would have a system to test these antivirals on exactly such a virus.

    Since i do dont know the data about the mutations created, i cannot comment on your second question, but i would bet, that at least one mutation affects the Heamagglutinin, since this is neccesary for an avian virus to switch to a mammalian-transmittable virus (there are multiple examples for this in the literature).

    As to your third and forth questions – there have been examples for the transmission of these viruses into humans, so therefore this subtype is a highly likely candidate. However, as i said, it`s not only about H5 an N1. Mutations in the other genes of the virus are necessary, as i mentioned above, and these of course could also appear with other avian influenza viruses. Therefore, the work by Fouchier et al, would most likely (of course, again just speculation, i don`t know the data) contribute to knowing factors that would enable other avian influenza viruses to “jump over” to humans.

    As to your point about the influenza-vaccines not beeing very effective – how do you know that? Please support this statement with a piece of literature that has been published in a peer reviewed journal, so that i can look it up. That would be very helpfull for this discussion.

  15.  >The groups of Fouchier and Kawaoka apparently created H5N1 mutants
     >which give the respective virus the availability to be  >1)
    transmitted amongst ferrets  >and  >2) beeing highly pathogenic,
    ie. killing the ferrets.


    they were targeting just 1), 2) was already fulfilled by the
    originalH5N1 and maintained by Fouchier, lost by Kawaoka(who did not
    mutations but rather reassortment)


     >Knowing these mutatons gives us on the other hand the
     >possibility to screen for the appearance of viruses carying these
     >mutations out there in the wild.


    yes, it also helps us to estimate the danger and adapt the magnitudeof
    our measures accordingly.


     >if we would know, that certain  >mutations are neccesary for
    this process, i.e. mutations within  >the polymerase or the NS1 protein
    of influenza virus, one would  >know that antivirals targeting these
    proteins are necessary, and  >with the virus Fouchier et al created, one
    would have a system  >to test these antivirals on exactly such a virus.


    there are no antivirals against polymerases or NS1. And if there
    were,they would hardly depend on one of those Fouchier-mutations.


     >on your second question, but i would bet, that at least one mutation
     >affects the Heamagglutinin,


    yes, most in HA and PB2, I read


     > Therefore, the work by Fouchier  >et al, would most likely (of
    course, again just speculation, i  >don`t know the data) contribute to
    knowing factors that would  >enable other avian influenza viruses to
    “jump over” to humans.


    yes. And this will presumably be tested on lowpath avian virusesnow
    too. But it would not help with antivirals or vaccines,just with danger


     >As to your point about the influenza-vaccines not beeing very
     >effective – how do you know that? Please support this statement
     >with a piece of literature that has been published in a peer reviewed
     >journal, so that i can look it up. That would be very helpfull
     >for this discussion.


    lots about that. Search pubmed for influenza vaccine
    effectiveness/efficiency.It may reduce your chance to catch that strain by
    70% which would be very good.It doesn’t work so well in the elderly, there
    are side effects and problems with children etc.Australia and
    US-military are reporting now how many people with ILI or confirmed flu were
    vaccinated. In Australia it reduced the chance of ILIduring the seasonal
    wave by ~20%, US-military reported no effect with H1 last year, I forgot the
    numbers for H3 – maybe I can add it later

  16.  I feel that Vincent looks more like the one to listen to. He feels really confident in what he is saying and the message he’s bringing forward in such an extent that he doesn’t give a damn about what he’s wearing. He also looks more approachable and “normal”. Osterholm on the other hand looks like he has to do everything in order to get his point across, to such an extent that he’s willing to look like a Christmas tree.

  17. Pingback: Building the perfect bug

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