Field of Science

Showing posts with label Mexican flu. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mexican flu. Show all posts

Is the government hiding something about the next flu pandemic?

Remember the flu pandemic? The one that swept the world just two years ago? You might be forgiven if this has slipped your mind - after all, it doesn't seem like such a big deal now. That's because we got lucky: despite many dire warnings about the danger of another 1918 "Spanish flu", when the 2009 pandemic arrived, it was far milder than previous pandemics. Hundreds of millions of people got the flu in 2009, but for most of them, it wasn't so bad. In fact, the new flu is less severe the old flu - the strain that was circulating before the new pandemic hit.

Now we have two flus circulating: the "old" H3N2, and the 2009 pandemic flu, called H1N1. (And the vaccine protects against both of them, so get your flu shot! Your friends, neighbors, and co-workers will all benefit.)

We really dodged a bullet in 2009. Despite our best efforts, it took 7 months (April to November) before a new vaccine was ready. Before we realized how mild it was, people were desperately snapping up stores of Tamiflu, an anti-viral medicine that only barely helps to treat the flu. If it had been like 1918, Tamiflu wouldn't have helped much, and tens of millions would have died.

The 2009 pandemic originated in pig farms in Mexico. We don't know precisely where it made the first leap into humans, but it appears that two different strains joined together in a pig somewhere to create the new H1N1. The flu has a nasty habit of jumping the species barrier, hopping to humans from both pigs and chickens.

So now that we know all this, next time will be different, right? The world's influenza scientists are monitoring pigs and chickens closely now, keeping a close eye on any new flu strains. Right? RIGHT???

Er, no. Not exactly. For one thing, surveillance in pigs appears to be nonexistent. I checked to see how many flu sequences from pigs in Mexican have been desposited in the public archive at GenBank since 2009 (using this terrific database). The result? One, in 2009. Nothing from 2010 or 2011. Hello, is anyone awake at the CDC and the WHO?

This despite the fact that scientists have serious concerns that the deadly H5N1 avian flu (the "bird flu") could combine its genes with H1N1 and create a really nasty new flu strain. And scientists have long had concerns that pigs could be the mixing vessels for new flu outbreaks - exactly what happened in 2009.

But wait… maybe they are monitoring the flu, but they're just not telling us. That would feed into all the fringe government conspiracy groups that claimed the 2009 pandemic was an intentionally engineered government-funded enterprise (see this BMJ article for more). I don't believe any of those conspiracy theories - most of them are just nuts - but read on.

Sharing data about flu viruses has been a touchy subject with the WHO and the CDC for years. As reported by the University of Minnesota's CIDRAP,
"In late 2006, virus sharing became an international flash point when Indonesia broke a long tradition of free international sharing of flu virus specimens by withholding its H5N1 virus samples as a protest against the high cost of commercial vaccines derived from such samples. The controversy has drawn attention to the problem of equitably distributing vaccines in the event of a pandemic."
A few months ago, the WHO finally agreed on a new set of principles on data sharing, which states that
"The WHO GISRS laboratories [which includes the CDC] will submit genetic sequences data to GISAID and Genbank or similar databases in a timely manner."
Excellent! If they do it.

As every biomedical scientist knows, GenBank is a free, public database of genetic sequence data that contains millions of sequences, from humans, bacteria, viruses, you name it. But GISAID is another database, in Switzerland - one that I initially supported - just for flu data. The original mission of GISAID was that data deposited there would go to GenBank as well, with little or no delay. But in a classic bait-and-switch move, the GISAID board changed that policy after the database was up and running, and now they can sit on data as long as they want.

OK, you say, but it's a private database, so they can do what they want. True enough. But here's the surprising bit: the CDC deposits most of its flu sequences ONLY in GISAID, where they can milk them for scientific results for years without sharing them with others. As one of GISAID's original supporters, I have an account there, and here's what I found.

So far, the CDC has deposited sequences from 6,801 flu isolates in GISAID, of which only a tiny handful are in GenBank. 3201 of these originated in the U.S., so there can't be any foreign government insisting that they be kept secret. These provide critical data that could help scientists predict what is coming in the next flu season. But you can't get these sequences without a GISAID account. And even if you have a GISAID account, as I do, you have to agree not to release the data as a condition of getting a look.

So why does the CDC deposit sequences in GISAID? I think it's precisely because of the restrictions. CDC's scientists don't want others to look at "their" data, because they're afraid someone else might discover something important and publish it before them.

The CDC, of course, is part of the U.S. government, and all its work is funded by the public. But it seems that the CDC flu scientists have forgotten their public health mission - or at least, they appear to be more concerned about their own careers (and the papers they might publish) than about making sure the world is ready for the next pandemic.

And by the way, even these sequences don't seem to include anything from pigs in Mexico. Hello, CDC? You are looking at swine flu now, aren't you?

Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh. I love the CDC: they do a terrific job most of the time, providing vital services to protect the public from infectious diseases. But their internal scientists sometimes seem to operate within a cocoon, and I'm afraid that's happening here. This culture of secrecy has got to stop, and I suspect that will only happen under pressure from the outside. The CDC Director, Thomas Frieden, needs to tell his flu people to start sharing what they know with the rest of the world. And they can start by putting their data in GenBank.

It’s the 2009 Mexican flu - or is it S-OIV H1N1(A)?

Millions of people have already been infected by the new pandemic influenza virus, and the number may well climb over a billion. The CDC recently estimated that up to 40% of U.S. citizens may be infected over the next year, a startlingly high number. Close to home (for me), several children in my neighborhood came down with influenza just last week. They all recovered, fairly quickly. They almost certainly had the new H1N1 pandemic strain, which seems to be spreading rapidly despite the fact that flu season is normally in the winter. A postdoc in my lab was the first person I know who caught the new pandemic flu – he came down with it in early May, and was very sick for a week. (He stayed home, and no one else was infected, as far as I know.)

But the media are still calling this “swine flu”, in headlines all over the world. Government authorities decided early on to call it 2009 H1N1(A), a catchy name if there ever was one. In one of the earliest scientific publications, CDC scientists called it S-OIV, for “swine-origin influenza virus”.

Nice try, but the media aren't buying it. The problem with the name "swine flu" is that it’s not a swine flu any more. Once an influenza virus has become established in humans, it’s a human flu. If you catch the “swine flu”, you’ll get it from another human – not from a pig. So what to call it?

The choice of a name is actually pretty clear: each of the three 20th-century flu pandemics was named after the geographic location where people believed it originated: the 1918 Spanish flu, the 1957 Asian flu, and the 1968 Hong Kong flu. As best we can tell, the new H1N1(A) virus originated in Mexico, and therefore we should call it the 2009 Mexican flu. This will be accurate and consistent with historical precedent.

And by the way, this idea has already been proposed, but the Mexican government objected, so government health authorities, including the WHO, immediately backed down and looked for a more politically acceptable name. Several countries have already started using the term Mexican flu, including Belgium and Israel, as the AP reported yesterday – although the English-speaking world is still using “swine flu.”

As a side note, we now know that the Spanish flu should have been called “American flu” or possibly “Kansas flu” (where it really started), but during World War I, the U.S. didn’t want to admit that it had a serious health crisis, nor did any of the European countries involved in WWI. The Spanish got stuck with the name – incorrectly – because they didn’t try to hide the fact that they had a pandemic on their hands.

So a note to headline writers in the media: I don’t blame you for calling it swine flu and ignoring alternative names such as S-OIV and H1N1(A). But it’s misleading to use the term “swine flu”, which is already used to refer to influenza viruses circulating among pigs. Calling it “swine flu” also led to the foolish decision by some countries to slaughter large numbers of pigs, which was completely ineffective at controlling the spread of the new virus.

It’s a human flu, and it started in Mexico, so let’s call it Mexican flu.