Sunday, May 31, 2009

SCIENTIST’S ‘WILD IDEA’ - "Human Error" cause of A(H1N1) Probed

This is an unexpected breakthrough - an open admission from a Pharma insider that the swine flu epidemic may have originated in a "laboratory escape." Human "error" may be too kind - but this development could at least put an end to the insidious impugning of innocent hog farmers, who've been blamed for the outbreak despite a clean bill of health from the Mexican government. "Gibbs said he came to his conclusion as part of an effort to trace the virus’ origins by analyzing its genetic blueprint." Science steps in and the cover story peels away. "Could be a mistake" is a thoughtful but speculative attribution of motive. There are only two possibilities: error or conspiracy. Not that the media will sort it out properly. But they are standing on the doorstep of reality for a change. You don't often see them get this close. - AC

Philippine Daily Inquirer

The World Health Organization (WHO) is investigating a claim by an Australian researcher that the swine flu virus circling the globe may have been created as a result of human error.

Adrian Gibbs, 75, who collaborated on research that led to the development of Roche Holding AG’s Tamiflu drug, said in an interview that he intended to publish a report suggesting the new strain may have accidentally evolved in eggs that scientists used to grow viruses and drug makers used to make vaccines.

“One of the simplest explanations is that it’s a laboratory escape,” Gibbs said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Wednesday. “But there are lots of others.”

The disclosure came Wednesday as China and Hong Kong respectively confirmed their second cases of swine flu. The A(H1N1) virus has killed 61 people worldwide.

Gibbs said he came to his conclusion as part of an effort to trace the virus’ origins by analyzing its genetic blueprint.

The WHO received Gibb’s study last weekend and was reviewing it, Keiji Fukuda, the agency’s assistant director general of health security and environment, said in an interview on May 11.

“You really want a very sober assessment” of the science behind the claim, he said.

Gibbs, who has studied germ evolution for four decades, is one of the first scientists to analyze the genetic makeup of the virus that was identified three weeks ago in Mexico and threatens to touch off the first flu pandemic since 1968.

‘Could be a mistake’

A virus that resulted from lab experimentation or vaccine production may indicate a greater need for security, Fukuda said.

By pinpointing the source of the virus, scientists also may better understand the microbe’s potential for spreading and causing illness, Gibbs said.

“The sooner we get to grips with where it’s come from, the safer things might become,” Gibbs said by phone from Canberra Wednesday.

“It could be a mistake” that occurred at a vaccine production facility or the virus could have jumped from a pig to another mammal or a bird before reaching humans, he said.

No evidence

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has also received Gibbs’ report and has decided there is no evidence to support his conclusion, said Nancy Cox, director of the agency’s influenza division.

Since researchers don’t have samples of swine flu viruses from South America and Africa, where the new strain may have evolved, those regions can’t be ruled out as natural sources for the new flu, Cox said.

“We are interested in the origins of this new influenza virus,” she said.

“But contrary to what the author has found, when we do the comparisons that are most relevant, there is no evidence that this virus was derived by passage in eggs.”

Wild idea

Gibbs, who says he studies the evolution of flu viruses as a “retirement hobby,” expects his research to be challenged by other scientists.

“This is how science progresses,” he said. “Somebody comes up with a wild idea, and then they all pounce on it and kick you to death, and then you start off on another silly idea.”

Gibbs spent most of his academic career studying plant viruses. His major contribution to the study of influenza occurred in 1975, while collaborating with scientists Graeme Laver and Robert Webster in research that led to the development of the anti-flu medicines Tamiflu and Relenza, made by GlaxoSmithKline Plc.

2nd cases in China, HK

Also Wednesday, China ramped up efforts to contain swine flu as it confirmed a second case on the mainland. The sufferer, identified only by his surname Lu, arrived in Beijing on a plane from Canada on Friday, and started feeling feverish on Sunday.

State news agency Xinhua said the man was under treatment in eastern China’s Shandong province where he had arrived by train after his return flight.

The 19-year-old student boarded the train to Jinan despite having a strong fever, the health ministry said, and alerted local authorities who picked him up on arrival.

Hong Kong also said a 24-year-old citizen returning from the United States was confirmed on Wednesday as the Chinese territory’s second case of swine flu.

2 weeks apart

The unidentified Hong Kong man arrived on Monday with a soar throat after a flight from San Francisco, said Dr. Thomas Tsang, controller with the city’s Center for Health Protection.

The man, who checked into an airport clinic following his arrival before being transported to a local hospital, was in stable condition.

The discovery comes nearly two weeks after Hong Kong confirmed its first swine flu patient, a 25-year-old Mexican whose entry in the city led authorities to lock down a posh downtown hotel—along with hundreds of guests and workers—for seven days.

China has already isolated 349 people, including foreigners, who travelled with the mainland’s first swine flu case. The government urged anyone who travelled on the train or plane with the second suspected case to report in.

Hugely complex task

The latest case in China raises the prospect of hundreds more having to be traced and quarantined—a hugely complex task in the world’s most populous nation.

The WHO on Wednesday said that more than 5,700 cases had been reported in 33 nations, around half of them—including three deaths—in the United States.

More than 2,000 other cases are in Mexico, the origin of the outbreak where the WHO has confirmed 56 fatalities and national authorities reported a further two. ...

With reports from Agence France-Presse and Associated Press

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