Bird flu may be far less lethal to people than the World Health Organization’s assessment of a death rate topping 50 percent, scientists said on Thursday in a finding that adds fuel to the heated controversy over publication of bird flu research.
Scientists led by virologist Peter Palese of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York argue in an analysis published in the online edition of the journal Science that the WHO, a U.N. agency, is calculating the death rate using an estimate of human bird flu cases that is simply too low.
Palese and his colleagues did not offer a specific death rate for people infected by bird flu. But based on figures cited in their analysis, the rate appears to be under 1 percent.
The WHO stood by its calculations and some experts criticized the Palese team’s findings, saying they were based on misleading data. As of Thursday, the WHO counts 586 cases of people infected by bird flu. Of those, 346 died, for a fatality rate of 59 percent.
Palese declined requests for an interview, and asked his co-authors not to speak to reporters, according to the Mount Sinai press office.
The important scientific journals Science and Nature are holding off on publishing papers on two experiments that created mutant, more contagious forms of the H5N1 bird flu virus. The delay comes at the request of a U.S. biosecurity panel for fear the research could fall into the wrong hands and be used to create a pandemic that might kill tens of millions of people.
Researchers in the United States and the Netherlands have agreed to a temporary halt to their work. Scientists and public health officials meeting at the WHO last week agreed that the moratorium should remain in place until they can fully assess the risks posed by the research.
Science and Nature have announced their intention to eventually publish the papers in full. The new study could support arguments that fears about the research are overblown.
“There has been a great scare among the public whipped up among the press in the last few months. That needs to be dealt with,” Science editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts said last week.
A spokeswoman for the journal said the controversy over bird flu research did not play a role in the decision to publish the new paper. “All Science papers are evaluated on their own merits,” spokeswoman Kathleen Wren said. “The question that this paper addresses, namely the prevalence and fatality rate of the virus, is an important one in itself for public health.”
Some scientists said there was little coincidence in the timing of the study’s publication. They noted that Palese published similar findings last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and that it is unusual for Science to publish a paper when key data have appeared elsewhere.
“The editors of Science and Nature are the most powerful people in science,” said an influenza epidemiologist who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “This is the editors of Science saying H5N1’s fatality rate isn’t 50 percent, so we don’t need to worry about a (possible) lab release.”
The new findings published in Science also contradict fresh assessments by Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). Osterholm cites evidence that the death rate from bird flu is at least as high as the WHO reports.
According to the WHO, the bird flu human death rate ranges from about 30 percent in Egypt to more than 80 percent in Indonesia and Cambodia, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said. Hartl said the WHO “is still comfortable estimating a fatality rate between 30 percent and 60 percent” despite the Palese analysis.