The debate goes on. Via Nathalia Holt's blog: Will the Real H5N1 Please Stand Up? Excerpt:
In recent weeks, H5N1 has been back in the headlines. The current controversy is focused on whether the sequence of mutant avian influenza strains, engineered to be transmissible between mammals, should be published.
On March 30th, in a win over sensationalized journalism, the US National Science Advisory Board reversed its earlier decision not to publish the two influenza manuscripts, stating “the data described in the revised manuscripts do not appear to provide information that would immediately enable misuse of the research in ways that would endanger public health or national security.”
We were lucky enough to speak with Taia Wang, first author on the Science Brevia study and currently finishing her MD/PhD at Mt. Sinai. Taia shared her perspective on her research, the role of the media in influenza reporting, and why politics and science don’t mix.
Can you tell us a little about your background? How did you get interested in science?
I am originally from the Bay Area. I moved to the East Coast for college at Smith and later at NYU where I studied liberal arts. It wasn’t until after college that I became interested in science and medicine while working in an immunology lab at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. I loved working in the laboratory and decided to apply for MD/PhD programs – ultimately, I ended up in the Medical Scientist Training Program at Mount Sinai.
How did you decide to study influenza? How did you end up in the Palese lab?
I joined the Palese lab because I was interested in studying the adaptive immune response against influenza viruses and, in particular, I wanted to work on the development of a universal influenza virus vaccine. My dissertation work was related to the identification of structural determinants of broad neutralization of influenza viruses and the development of novel influenza vaccine constructs. I continued to be active in the lab after completion of my PhD – the H5N1 work was done during my final year of medical school.
Do you think lowered mortality rates for H5N1 will change the way the public views avian influenza?
The public’s understanding of anything in science is dependent on the way the media reports available data. The reason that the H5N1 fatality rate has been difficult to clarify in the media is because of semantics – the WHO has reported a very high “case fatality rate” but the definition for “case” used by the WHO only includes very sick patients.
For a meaningful evaluation of H5N1 viruses as human pathogens we need to know a true “fatality rate” which is the ratio of the total number of deaths to the total number of infections. With time, I think it will be clear that the fatality rate for human H5N1 infections is much lower than what is currently reported by the WHO.