Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Influenza, Epidemics, and Science

Back in March, thinking about the controversy over Gain of Function (GOF) research on influenza viruses, I suggested that the debate isn’t really about science, nor

about morals, no matter what some self-important researchers claim.   The debate is about who will be able to control scientific research and who will benefit from the consequences (including, presumably, vaccines or other marketable preventive agents).  Don’t be misled by assertions that the debate over GOF research is about public health, or ethics.  It’s about the usual:  political power and profit making.

Now that a new flu virus, H7N9, has caused over 130 human flu cases in the far east, with 37 deaths (per WHO’s summary of 29 May 2013), the questions on GOF studies might seem to take on new significance.

The insightful Guenther Stertenbrink brought me up on my assertions about GOF research, saying

I don’t see that connection and motivation, how they  (signatories) might benefit from flu-research reduction politically or financially,  the “marketable agents”…  And don’t you think this should be discussed by hearing both sides,  giving them the opportunity to reply, with links etc. to support the claims  ? Have you contacted them ?
I’m trying to estimate the pandemic risks and I’m in the process of contacting them to see the letter to the ethics commission, how the signatories and 200 nonflu researchers were selected and approached, what their expertise is to judge and weigh and assess and quantify flu-specific benefits and risks.

Stertenbrink is working assiduously to assess both real pandemic risks and the scientific issues involved in the GOF research debate.  He is hosting a useful colloquy  and has also posted a timeline of commentary and findings.

But I’m sticking to my guns.  Guenther is perfectly correct when he intimates that many of the complainants who ask that GOF flu research be controlled or curtailed have nothing financial to gain.  But it’s not true that they have nothing at all to gain.  In science, and especially in science that bears on public health, controlling the narrative is of nonpareil importance.

The only reason why external commissions should be convened to assess the possible dangers of success of GOF  experiments is to make sure that the “right” people get to control the narrative.  Because, really, to claim that the actual danger to humans arising from transfering genes in flu virions is knowable and predictable is to misrepresent the deep uncertainty in assessing risk. 

There are three consequences of indulging in this misapprehended risk assessment.

First, it creates a false voice of authority.  “We know that bad things are likely to happen with probability X if experiment Y succeeds” implies that “we” (the experts?) have knowledge beyond what is actually available.  People who have claimed to have exceptional knowledge have done some very, very bad things to the world.  All claims of extraordinary knowledge of the future are to be rejected, on moral grounds, in a civil society.

Second, the claim to be able to assess the risks of successful experiments works against the inspired tinkering of science.  If our civilization want to have science — and I think it should — we are going to have to live with some unwanted disasters, and with some people (scientists, I mean) doing unseemly things.  We may reasonably regulate what they do, in order to prevent animals from being tortured or people killed for the sake of science.  But we can’t expect that science will always be “well behaved,” in the sense of a well-behaved mathematical function.

Third, claims that GOF experiments are unethical are really assertions that some other kind of science is ethical.  Some other science, in other words, is closer to an imaginary Platonic sort of correctness.  Science, as Paul Feyerabend argued, is anarchic.  Properly so.  But that means there are no hard-and-fast rules of Truth.

As a result, Truth in science is usually the thing that the most vocal and powerful people agree on. If certain kinds of science (GOF research, in this case) are declared off limits because the powerful people, such as those who are doing other kinds of research and think GOF research should stop, deem it to be “unethical,” then it is a sure thing that the truths of the powerful will be the only Truth.  But why shouldn’t everybody  have their chance at Truth?

I stand by my assertion.  The debates over GOF research, just like debates over “ownership” of the MERS coronavirus sequence or the carefully constructed fear  over whether the world is  sufficiently frightened about MERS, aren’t about science, or public health, or ethics.  They are about who controls the narrative.


Further Feuding on Flu

My stand on prohibiting flu-virus research hasn’t changed: as I told the NY Times last year, even if flu experimentation is overseen by a group of so-called experts, it’s just not clear who should keep an eye on the experts.

And the question about minding the experts just got more complicated.

The issue has been whether researchers should be allowed to conduct experiments with modified strains of H5N1 (avian) influenza virus, in order to find out more about the potential for bird flu to spread among humans.  Concerned about possible dangers of experimenting with extra-transmissible bird ful, a moratorium on such research was declared.  The moratorium ended in late January of this year.

But now some distinguished scientists are calling for fuller constraints on this kind of research — called gain-of-function (GOF) experimentation, because it involves creating novel strains of viruses with capabilities not known to occur in nature.  The ostensible purpose of such research is to figure out how to prevent harm associated with inevitable genetic changes in viruses.  Think of it as creating disaster scenarios at the molecular level, so as to determine how to avert damage if the disaster comes to pass.

CIDRAP gives a nice summary of the new controversy, reporting that the Foundation for Vaccine Research, an advocacy group, has written to Dr. Amy Guttman, chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, raising what the Foundation says are “moral and ethical” concerns about GOF research.

An editorial by Simon Wain-Hobson in Nature the other day advances reasons why scientists should get together to limit GOF research.  Wain-Hobson questions the scientific validity of the predictions such research makes (since natural selection in the real world might produce changes in viruses quite unlike those manufactured in the lab), and criticizes WHO for failing to generate a broad discussion on the dangers of GOF research.

Then, he asks what will happen if the viruses created in GOF research leak out of a lab.  Who will take responsibility, who should make decisions, who should own the information arising from the research?  He says,

The global ramifications of GOF research have simply not been sufficiently explored and discussed. Influenza virologists are going down a blind alley and the powers that be are blindly letting them go down that alley, which is tantamount to acquiescing. So let’s be clear: the end game could be viruses more dangerous than the Spanish flu strain.

And Wain-Hobson goes on to propose a suspension of all GOF research until

virologists open up and engage in public discussion of their work and the issues it raises. Given that the flu community failed utterly to use the year-long hiatus to good effect, it is clear that an independent risk–benefit assessment of GOF work is needed.

Here is where it gets complicated.  One group of scientists (Wain-Hobson and the FVR) is angry with another group (the so-called flu community, basically those influenza researchers who conducted the 2011 H5N1 experiments and their defenders).

At the same time, both groups are unwilling to have government regulate research. In fact, Wain-Hobson worries because

Officials in Washington DC are putting the finishing touches to new guidelines for the review, regulation and oversight of this kind of research. The chill winds that we can anticipate blowing from policy-makers as a result could affect all of us who research viruses and their pathology.

The terms of the debate aren’t scientific, that is.  And they surely aren’t about morals, no matter what some self-important researchers claim.   The debate is about who will be able to control scientific research and who will benefit from the consequences (including, presumably, vaccines or other marketable preventive agents).  

Don’t be misled by assertions that the debate over GOF research is about public health, or ethics.  It’s about the usual:  political power and profit making.

Against Universal Flu Immunization

In a strong piece at CNN online yesterday, Jen Christensen points out that no European countries expect the entire population to be immunized against flu — unlike the US, where everyone over the age of 6 months is urged to get flu vaccine every year.

Why does CDC recommend (based on advice by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices in 2010) that all Americans — from infancy on up — get immunized against flu?

A few possibilities:

1.  Public health benefit?

No.  Over the past twenty years, flu-vaccine coverage — the proportion of the population that is immunized — has been going up progressively.  But flu hospitalization and mortality rates have been basically constant.  If mass immunization had any public health value, those rates should go down as coverage goes up

(A technical note: this means that coverage remains below the threshold needed to reduce influenza transmission population-wide, i.e., it isn’t high enough for herd immunity.  But that’s the point.  In order to be of public health benefit, flu vaccine would have to be accepted by almost everybody, every year.  And even that might not be enough:  For a nice explanation of why the efficacy of flu vaccine is limited, see Vincent Racaniello’s blog post.)

2.  Exceptional efficacy of the vaccine?

No.  Based on an observational study of acute respiratory illness patients published this month, the effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine is 55% against illness caused by influenza type A (which accounts for about 80% of flu cases).  Effectiveness is 70% against type B.  Overall, the chances of being protected against symptomatic flu are less than two out of three.

Jefferson and colleagues found that the overall efficacy of  flu vaccines at reducing influenza A or B infection in children aged 2-16 is only about 65%, and that inactivated vaccines (i.e., the usual injection) had little impact on serious illness or hospitalization from flu-like conditions in this age group.

As with this month’s observational study, Jefferson et al.’s meta-analysis of multiple studies on flu immunization found that the inactivated vaccine had about 73% efficacy at preventing infection in healthy adults — but that efficacy can be as low as about 50% in years when the vaccine isn’t well-matched to the season’s circulating viruses.

Importantly, the Jefferson studies found that effectiveness of immunization — the prevention of serious illness or hospitalization from influenza-like illness — is very low.

There’s no sound public health rationale for encouraging everyone to be immunized against flu every year.

People who are likely to develop serious complications if they are infected can benefit from immunization.  But for most of us, immunization only reduces (by two-thirds) the already rather small chance of infection with influenza.  And it doesn’t protect us much from serious respiratory illness during flu season.

I commented in 2011 on public officials striving to help pharmaceutical companies profit from flu fears. And that’s what we’re seeing again this season — with exaggerated warnings and declarations of flu emergencies. Even though the latest national summary from CDC shows that less than 30% of all influenza-like illness is actually caused by flu this season — and that’s likely an overestimate, since it’s based on testing of more severe cases of acute respiratory illness.  And the surveillance data suggest that the season’s flu outbreak might already be past its peak.

Get immunized against flu if you’re worried.  But keep in mind that vaccination against flu is not going to help the public’s health, and it isn’t highly likely to help yours — it’s primarily your contribution to the profits of Sanofi-Pasteur, Novartis, GSK, or Merck.


The Health Department at Work

I was pleased to receive a phone call from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene  and to be selected to participate in a “health survey.”  The questions offered a fascinating insight into the agency’s preoccupations — and what sorts of impropriety obsess its leadership nowadays.

It’s reassuring that the Department wants to be able to estimate how many New Yorkers lack health insurance and, separately, lack a regular health-care provider, and asked questions about those things.  And I was impressed that the survey designers thought to ask whether, the last time I sought help for a medical problem, it took a long time to get an appointment.

And then came some predictable How Are We Doing? questions:  Have I had a flu immunization in the past 12 months? (No, thank you, I’m not convinced that it works…  Okay, I didn’t say that, the survey taker seemed young and too earnest for serious critique, so I just said “No.”)  At least two doses of hepatitis B vaccine at some time in the past?  When did I last have a colonoscopy?

But there was the question about whether I have used oxocodone or hydrocodone (OxyContin or Vicodin) without a prescription, or outside of the prescribed dosage.  The Department has just announced a new campaign to stop people from using pain killers too much.

There was the question about whether I’m exposed to cigarette smoke in my household.

There was a question on whether my household has a disaster plan.  No, we don’t.  We have a couple of flashlights, some water, and a bottle of scotch.  Will that do?  We’re grown-ups, we don’t have pets or little children to look after.  We’ll work something out.

(But I didn’t say that to my earnest interviewer, either.  I have a feeling they don’t find whiskey to be humorous, over there at the health department.  In fact, they had some very specific questions about alcohol consumption, amount and frequency.)

There were questions about how often I exercise vigorously.  How often I exercise moderately.  How often I exercise lightly.  How long I engage in said exercise when I do do it.  Very interested in exercise, our health department.

There was the question as to how many servings of fruit or vegetables I ate yesterday.

And then, onward to mayor Mike Bloomberg’s white whale:  sugar-sweetened beverages!  Mayor Mike is going to ban serving soda or other sweet beverages in large sizes — and he’s not asking for a new law (which might not pass), just a go-ahead from the city’s eleven-person Board of Health, all appointed by the mayor, chaired by the city’s cheerleader for “healthy lifestyles,” health commissioner Thomas Farley.   A restaurant trade association, the Center for Consumer Freedom, responded to news of the mayor’s intention with an amusing ad in today’s NYT, portraying Bloomberg as The Nanny.

The survey questions:  How often do I drink soda or bottled iced tea?  What about beverages to which I add sugar myself, like tea or coffee?

And, now that we were deep into the zone of health officials’ self-stimulation:  how many (a) women and (b) men had I had sex with in the past year?  Did I use condoms?  And, had I used the Internet to meet a sex partner in the past 12 months?

So much for health.  Now we know what haunts the dreams of the self-righteous mayor and his bluenose health commissioner:

Pain relief.

Fat people.

Vigorous exercise.

Pleasurable foods.


Reading this list, you would have to be forgiven for thinking that these men, Bloomberg and Farley, have been living in a monastery since, say, the 14th century.  In fact, if they were really clergymen instead of officials, they would leave us alone about how we eat and sweat and screw.  At least in between sermons.

But thanks for calling.




Censoring Science

Crof’s H5N1 blog is the place to watch for coverage of this week’s controversy over censorship of scientific findings.  A few words here about the controversy and the rush to censor science.

As Martin Enserink reports at Science Insider:

Two groups of scientists who carried out highly controversial studies with the avian influenza virus H5N1 have reluctantly agreed to strike certain details from manuscripts describing their work after having been asked to do so by a U.S. biosecurity council. The as-yet unpublished papers, which are under review at Nature and Science, will be changed to minimize the risks that they could be misused by would-be bioterrorists.

The “biosecurity council” in question is the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, an arm of the NIH’s Office of Science Policy.   It has recommended censorship of research on genetic alterations of avian (H5N1) flu that might make the virus easily transmissible between humans and pathogenic as well — ingredients for a potentially serious human outbreak.

I attach little public health importance to the experimental work, carried out by Fouchier in the Netherlands and Kawaoka in the U.S.  Flu’s behavior in human populations has been notoriously difficult to predict, even with relatively advanced molecular information about viral strains.  Flu forecasters repeatedly predict bad outbreaks and even (as in 2009) devastating pandemics — which fail to materialize.

Even when it comes to the most studied flu outbreak of all, the 1918 pandemic, opinions still differ on why so many millions of people died.

This week, what concerns me is the biosecurity industry.  It seems more than ever eager to terrify people.   The Fouchier and Kawaoka experiments themselves are interesting but hardly recipes for disaster.   And yet, some voices say the research shouldn’t have been carried out in the first place.  Surprisingly, they include the respected D.A. Henderson, here much mistaken.  He editorializes this week with two coauthors for the online publication Biosecurity and Bioterrorism.

It’s not opposition to science — it’s just the biosecurity “experts” making a living.

The move to suppress publication of research results because scientific findings might tip off some chimerical evildoers is ridiculous.  Fouchier, Kawaoka, and their teams were obviously trying to contribute to the search for ways to make people safer.   That’s what most people want science to do.  Instead of urging caution, the many scientists on the NSABB should be standing up for the wide dissemination of scientific findings — not for suppressing them.  Made-up concerns over “bioterrorism” should not trump public access to scientific research.

And the NSABB scientists shouldn’t be cowed by the self-professed biosecurity “experts” at the Center for Biosecurity.

The sole raison-d’etre of the “biosecurity” business is to keep itself in business — by keeping people terrified.   It does that by continually invoking impossible scenarios that are supposed to (a) frighten the public and (b) cause the public to buy products that we don’t need or give up rights that we do need.

After being scared into thinking the 2009 H1N1 outbreak was going to be a reprise of the 1918 flu calamity and finding that it was exceptionally mild instead, surely the public is not going to be taken in by the biosecurity industry much longer.

It’s anybody’s guess as to whether the new findings about H5N1 are at all meaningful in (human) public health terms.  Which is what happens with science.  That’s why the point of suppressing the findings isn’t to make anyone safer – – it’s just to keep the biosecurity experts in business.