Bird flu may not be so deadly after all, new analysis claims

Reuters, Sunday 26 Feb 2012

Report drops death rate of bird flu from 50 to 1 per cent; experiments based on more contagious mutations will see delayed publishing for security reasons

Bird flu may be far less lethal to people than the World Health Organisation’s assessment of a death rate topping 50 per cent, scientists said 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 UN 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 per cent.

The WHO stood by its calculations and some experts criticised 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 per cent.

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 US 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.

According to the WHO, the bird flu human death rate ranges from about 30 per cent in Egypt to more than 80 per cent in Indonesia and Cambodia, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said. Hartl said the WHO "is still comfortable estimating a fatality rate between 30 per cent and 60 per cent" despite the Palese analysis.

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