Research, the Avian Flu and Bioterrorism

January 26, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Public Health 
Aesop's fable, "The Peacock and the Crow," from the 1470's Medici Manuscript

Aesop’s fable, “The Peacock and the Crow,” from the 1470′s Medici Manuscript

In their zeal to keep us all alive, it seems fair to say that public health officials love bioterrorism preparedness measures. In fact, the only thing they might love planning for more is pandemics. So last month, when researchers at two different facilities revealed they were able to mutate the virulent H5N1 avian flu strain to pass between mammals simply through the air, the NIH was highly concerned.

The discovery is alarming because avian flu is considered one of the world’s deadliest pathogens, with a 60% mortality rate. But while avian flu viruses have infected humans in the past, those infections have come directly from birds. If the virus can be mutated into an airborne pathogen, the consequences can be catastrophic.

Two research teams (one led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, and the other by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin) engineered the new bird flu strains. After growing the H5N1 strain for several generations, the scientists discovered the exact genetic mutations that allowed the virus to be transmitted by air between ferrets. The results could be easily duplicated if the teams publish their studies with full details.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a U.S. government advisory panel that is run out of the NIH, asked the journals Science and Nature to delay publication of the research. The NIH released the following details in a press release:

Due to the importance of the findings to the public health and research communities, the NSABB recommended that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm. The NSABB also recommended that language be added to the manuscripts to explain better the goals and potential public health benefits of the research, and to detail the extensive safety and security measures taken to protect laboratory workers and the public.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Central Panel, Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Central Panel, Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

The request has sparked a debate about if and when it is appropriate to have oversight of dual-use research. As defined by the NSABB, dual-use research of concern is research that is “reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied by others to pose a threat to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, animals, the environment or materiel.”   A good synopsis of the bioethical implications of such research is considered by Alan Rozenshtein on

One of the research team leaders, Ron Fouchier, responded that the NSABB’s advice amounted to one-country domination of a discussion with worldwide impact. At the same time, he conceded that the mutant strain is “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.” The professor who oversees biosafety for University of Wisconsin, William Mellon, responded that the research is “society’s best defense against a pathogen that has shown time and time again that, in nature, it can adapt to human hosts with dire consequences for global public health.”

Science and Nature were slower to respond. Last month, Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts noted the journal’s initial hesitation to acquiesce to the NSABB recommendation-

“We strongly support the work of the NSABB and the importance of its mission for advancing science to serve society…At the same time, however, Science has concerns about withholding potentially important public-health information from responsible influenza researchers. Many scientists within the influenza community have a bona fide need to know the details of this research in order to protect the public, especially if they currently are working with related strains of the virus.”

Nature‘s Editor-in-Chief Philip Campbell replied along the same lines:

“We have noted the unprecedented NSABB recommendations that would restrict public access to data and methods and recognise the motivation behind them. It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers. We are discussing with interested parties how, within the scenario recommended by NSABB, appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled.”

The issue at hand is as one scientist, Peter Palese, opined in Nature: “We need more people to study this potentially dangerous pathogen, but who will want to enter a field in which you can’t publish your most scientifically interesting results?”

Just last week, both teams of researchers announced in an open letter published in Science and Nature that they agreed to pause their work for 60 days. In the meantime, the teams propose to discuss the benefits and safety measures of their work in an international forum for discussion and debate within the scientific community. The researchers stated in the open letter,

“We realize that organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work. To provide time for these discussions, we have agreed on a voluntary pause of 60 days on any research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals.”

Where, when and how these discussions will take place on an international level remains to be seen, but the NSABB appears to have made its point.

An unintended effect of the recommendations is that they have called into question the role and purpose of the NSABB. The NSABB was created in 2004, as a response to the 2001 anthrax attacks and the subsequent public outcry for regulation of research with implications for bioterrorism. As past president of the American Society for Microbiology, Ronald Atlas, put it, “[t]here was a sense, whether right or wrong, that if the community did not act to protect the integrity of science, government would overreach and there would be censorship.” Instead of regulating scientific research directly, the NSABB panel of scientists was given the role of offering advisory opinions on sensitive issues.

Since 2004, the NSABB has only been asked to review six papers. Two of those papers, released in 2005, described the reconstruction of the deadly 1918 influenza virus. The NSABB recommended that the papers clearly define the public-health benefits of the research, but no other advice was given. This is partly why the NSABB’s current recommendation is unprecedented.

According to Amy Patterson, director of the NIH, a draft policy for dual-use research should be presented by the U.S. government this spring. The draft should present a comprehensive framework for the oversight of such research, and create a local review component. As she states it,

Whatever system is put in place needs to have both aspects: some consideration up front when the work is funded, but also a component of local oversight and review. It starts with the investigator — he or she knows best what is emerging out of their work. But we also need a level of institutional review to provide a second set of eyes taking a fresh look. The earlier something is recognized, the more options for management you have.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stated that the draft plan may require scientists to apply online for access to critical information, after explaining their need for details on dual-use research. As of right now, it is unclear who would judge the validity of such requests. It is worth noting that at least one other institution, the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies, has outlined potential oversight systems already.

Popular Science Monthly, 1889, "The Smallest Bird"

Popular Science Monthly, 1889, “The Smallest Bird”

The dilemma of dual-use research is already a global problem, and therefore requires a global solution. The World Health Organization commented after the H5N1 mutations, stating a deep concern about the possible misuses of the research. The WHO was quick to note the critical need for such scientific knowledge, but concluded that “such research should be done only after all important public health risks and benefits have been identified and reviewed, and it is certain that the necessary protections to minimize the potential for negative consequences are in place.”

As Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes in a thorough review of international mechanisms for oversight of dual-use research, the first problem is that there are “no consistent, internationally agreed-upon regulations governing synthetic biology.” The only review that does currently exist is the “toothless” Biological Weapons Convention(BWC) from 1975, to which 165 states are party.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended a BWC summit, and stated-

The nature of the problem [dual-use research] is evolving. The advances in science and technology make it possible to both prevent and cure more diseases, but also easier for states and nonstate actors to develop biological weapons. A crude, but effective, terrorist weapon can be made by using a small sample of any number of widely available pathogens, inexpensive equipment, and college-level chemistry and biology. Even as it becomes easier to develop these weapons, it remains extremely difficult . . . to detect them, because almost any biological research can serve dual purposes. The same equipment and technical knowledge used for legitimate research to save lives can also be used to manufacture deadly diseases.”

The need for global cooperation on this issue is crucial.

In truth, it seems that pandemics fascinate most of society, and not just public health professionals. Last year saw the release of the movie Contagion, with a plot line appealing enough to enlist the acting talents of Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon (for a great comparison of the movie to real-world issues, see  W. Ian Lipkin’s op-ed for the New York Times). Further, avian flu remains a present threat. Just this month, Chinese health authorities confirmed a bird-flu-related death, Indonesia reported the third death related to bird flu in three months, and there are reports of avian flu among birds in India. Given that H5N1 remains such a threat without the consideration of bioterrorism, the need for regulations on dual-use research is seemingly more apparent than ever.


Are Fat Taxes All the New Rage?

November 8, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Public Health 
Photo by Vijverln

Photo by Vijverln

The world’s first fat tax is finally here. Well, it’s not actually here (New Jersey’s Star Ledger Newspaper took the time to say “fat chance” to such a plan working in the U.S.), but it has been officially enacted in Denmark.

The tax applies to all foods that have a saturated fat content greater than 2.3%. The tax rate is 16 Danish kroner per kilogram of saturated fat (roughly $1.29 per pound). Danish officials expect the tax to generate somewhere between 1.5  billion and 2.75 billion Danish kroner annually. According to the Danish Agriculture and Food Council, a family with two adults and two children that does not change their eating habits can expect to pay an extra 1000 kroner a year (a little less than $200).

Interestingly enough, the goal of the tax is not to target obesity. The obesity rate in Denmark is 13.4%, which is 2.1% less than the European average. The last time the U.S. had obesity rates as low as Demark was in the 1970s. Instead, the fat tax is aimed at increasing the Danish life expectancy of 79 by three years over the next decade.

This type of legislation is not new for Danes. Denmark was actually the first country to institute a ban on trans fats in 2003, and last year the country instituted a 25% tax on sugary items like ice cream, chocolate and sweets. Sin taxes for soda, alcohol and cigarettes also exist. Advocates of these taxes note the benefit to preventative health and also the advantage of filling the government’s coffers. According to the secretary general of the European Public Health Alliance, Monika Kosinska,

“Denmark will not only increase general health amongst the population but will also ease the burden on the public health care system and increase its resources at a time of recession when [European] Member States are cutting public expenditure.”

Benefits aside, the criticisms of the new tax are numerous. In an article for The Atlantic, Edward Tenner notes the rich irony that Denmark, one of the world’s foremost producers of butter, cheese and bacon, is the first country to implement a tax on fat. Critics include, of course, the numerous producers of affected foods like butter, milk, cheese, meat and oil. One CEO of a Danish meat manufacturing company called the tax a bureaucratic nightmare.

Producers are required to pay the tax, and these costs will be passed on to consumers, suggesting that more Danes will shop abroad. Denmark’s central association of margarine producers (MIFU), has already filed a complaint with the European Union (EU) Commission arguing that the tax is noncompliant with EU free trade rules.

Other critics note that the tax may not be high enough to actually change behavior.

Given the similarity to soda taxes (previously discussed on this blog), it’s worth referring to a 2009 article published in the New England Journal of Medicine by Kelly Brownell and his team. They considered the public health and economic benefits of taxing high-sugar beverages and found that the 5% soda taxes that many U.S. states have enacted are too small to affect consumption. Their team proposed that a sugar tax on beverages would have to be much higher to lower soda consumption, at around 1 cent per ounce of beverage.

A 2007 study by the Forum for Health Economics and Policy focused on the ability of a fat tax to change behavior and found that a 10% fat tax on dairy would not reduce consumption by even one percent. The authors suggest that the tax rate would have to be much higher, but even a 50% tax may only reduce fat intake by 3%.

Some critics have offered suggestions on how to better address the problem both of obesity and shortened life-spans. Dr. Mike Rayner, Director of Oxford University’s Health Promotion Research Group, argues that Danes may switch from high fat foods to other unhealthy foods. He proposes that the overall unhealthiness of food should be taxed instead, not just a single nutrient. Simultaneously lowering taxes on fruits and vegetables could promote a healthier behavior change.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa, points to the public health issue of obesity as a societal problem. He notes,

“If we want to have legislation that deals with this problem, perhaps legislation that would deal with advertisement to children and zoning laws for fast foods around school would be a better place to start than a tax that is simply going to raise money and will not, in fact, change anything.”

NYU professor Marion Nestle finds the fat tax to be troubling for a different reason. To see individual behavior change, she argues that we must change the behavior of corporations “that make and market unhealthful products, spending vast fortunes to make them available, desirable and socially acceptable.” She cites a recent Lancet article on food environment factors that sees food processing, cost and marketing as drivers of consumption. She concludes, “[G]overnments seriously concerned about reducing rates of chronic disease should also consider ways to regulate production of unhealthy products, along with the ways they are marketed.”

Despite the multitude of criticisms, several other European countries have expressed a desire to follow suit– including France, Finland, Romania, Sweden, Norway, and even Britain. Americans should also be watching this social health experiment. But given that our country’s favorite condiment is mayonnaise, maybe the Star Ledger is right– it may not be time for a U.S. fat tax just yet.


FDA’s ‘Bad Ad’ Program is in Full Effect

September 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Uncategorized 

ebathLast spring, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched the Truthful Prescription Drug Advertising and Promotion Program (known more accessibly as the “Bad Ad Program“). The goal of the program is to enlist the help of health care professionals, consumers, and industry representatives in noting FDA violations and reporting activities and messages that are false or misleading. Common drug marketing violations include omitting or downplaying risk, overstating effectiveness, promoting off-label uses and making misleading drug comparisons. The program is run by the FDA’s Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications (DDMAC), which is responsible for “ensuring truthful advertising and promotion of prescription drugs.”

The FDA published a year-end report in May noting that the program has been successful in raising awareness. DDMAC received 328 reports of potentially untruthful or misleading promotions in one year, with the majority of those submitted by health care professionals (188 reports) and consumers (116 reports). The report notes that prior to the Bad Ad program, the FDA received an average of about 104 reports per year.

And the Bad Ad tips are still coming in. Just at the end of last month, DDMAC issued a reprimand letter to Pfizer’s Vice President of US Regulatory Affairs regarding misleading advertising of drugs on the company’s Lipitor website. A complaint to the Bad Ad program observed that the links from the Lipitor site led to pages for the drugs Caduet (for high cholesterol and blood pressure), Norvasc (for high blood pressure), and Chantix (for smoking cessation). But each of those pages failed to note any of the risk information associated with the drugs, which is a violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

The FDA states that “by omitting the most serious and frequently occurring risks associated with Caduet, Chantix, and Norvasc, the webpage misleadingly suggests that these drugs are safer than have been demonstrated.” The letter ends with a request that Pfizer immediately stop the dissemination of violative promotional materials for the drugs. The company was to have submitted a written response to the complaint by September 14th that states how they will comply with the request.

While the Bad Ad program may be working to raise awareness among health professionals and consumers, one violation may not be enough to induce compliance from pharmaceutical companies. In fact, DDMAC already chided Pfizer in March of 2009 for omitting risk information for Caduet and Chantix. In that case, Pfizer sponsored links for the drugs on Internet search engines. The sites linked to did not mention any risk information and therefore, presumably,  can be said to have also represented the products in a manner which, as above, suggests that these drugs are safer than have been demonstrated.” The most recent letter states that “DDMAC is concerned that Pfizer is continuing to promote its products in a similarly violative manner.” A citizen’s task force is a good way for the FDA to multiply their eyes and ears to keep tabs on misleading and/or violative advertisement. We’ll see what further successes the next year-end report for the Bad Ad program can show. Or, perhaps, success might also be measured in the absence of violations.


FDA Drafts Guidance on Mobile Medical Apps

September 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 

800px-iphoneIn an effort to keep up with advancing technology, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed new regulations to monitor medical smartphone applications (apps). The draft proposal states that any mobile app that is intended for use in performing a medical device function meets the definition of a medical device under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Specifically, these mobile medical apps must be either used as an accessory to a regulated medical device, or transform a mobile platform into a regulated medical device.

To further clarify what apps will be regulated, the document notes that a mobile app is a device “when the intended use of a mobile app is for the diagnosis of disease or other conditions, or the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or is intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man.” The guidance document explains how the intended use of mobile apps can be shown by labeling claims, advertising materials, or oral or written statements by manufacturers or their representatives.

The goal of the regulations is to protect patient safety, though to date there have been no adverse events reported to the FDA. The proposal seems to be forward looking in creating a framework for mobile app manufacturers. According to the Associated Press, there are already more than 17,000 medical applications currently available.

Physicians can use mobile phones to calculate prescription dosages, review disease treatment guidelines, and explain diagnoses and procedures to patients. The FDA expects that by 2015, 500 million smartphone users will rely on health care apps.

Two medical apps have already received FDA approval for use by physicians. The first is a prenatal care app called AirStrip OB. Cleared in 2009, the app allows obstetricians to use their phones to remotely access real-time data for mothers and babies. The second app, approved earlier this year, is Mobile MIM. This app allows hospitals and doctors offices to send images to physicians’ mobile devices. The FDA noted that the software should not be used to replace radiology workstations as the primary way to view medical images, but is useful when a physician has limited access.

Opinions from within the industry vary on the new guidelines. Some feel that the regulation is both necessary and welcome. By regulating the medical app industry, the FDA is offering market players clear guidelines for continued development. Others argue that the regulations may be too far reaching. For example, medical apps to calculate prescription dosages for patients are not new and are based on accepted formulas. Smartphone apps that achieve the same goal increase efficiency and do not put patients at risk, and therefore do not merit differential treatment.

The proposed regulations raise two main concerns for patients and physicians. The first is a privacy concern, similar to the drawbacks considered for other forms of Electronic Health Records. Transferring data between hospital systems and physician smartphones will increase confidentiality and security concerns. Once patient data is accessed on a smartphone, privacy may be easily breached should the phone be used by another person, lost or stolen. The second concern is that these proposed rules could increase the purchase price for medical apps. App developers will likely have increased costs for filing applications and seeking legal counsel, and those costs will be passed to end users.

The draft proposal is currently in an open comment period, and the FDA will amend the regulations after the comment period closes.


Sunscreen Labeling Rules Revamped

July 6, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Public Health 
The Fall of Icarus, Rubens (1636)

The Fall of Icarus, Rubens (1636)

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released new regulations for sunscreen manufacturers to update rules from over 30 years ago. The new regulations, which will take effect in 2012, require that sunscreen manufacturers prove certain labeling claims before they can be used on packaging. In an effort to avoid consumer confusion, the FDA is regulating when sunscreens can claim broad-spectrum protection or water resistance and is also setting a sun protection factor (SPF) cap at 50.

According to the new rules, only sunscreens that block both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays can be labeled to have broad spectrum protection. While UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn, UVA rays contribute to skin cancer risk and premature aging. Sunscreens that are not broad spectrum or with SPF values less than 15 will be given the following warning label:

Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert:  Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.

In addition, sunscreens can no longer be labeled as waterproof or sweatproof, and manufacturers cannot use the term “sunblock” on their packaging. The FDA remains concerned with exaggerated claims, as no sunscreen can block the sun entirely, nor are any of them completely waterproof. Instead, sunscreens can be called “water resistant” and must be marked as either 40 or 80 minutes, depending on how long the SPF protection will last. Finally, the FDA is requiring any sunscreens with rates above SPF 50 be labeled as “SPF 50+”, given that data suggest no additional protection above that level.

In issuing these new regulations, the FDA is targeting rising skin cancer rates among Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States with 58,000 new cases diagnosed and around 8,000 deaths per year. The hope is that the new regulations will make it easier for consumers to choose the best sun protection and that this will help decrease the incidence of skin cancer.

As welcome as these new regulations are, they are subject to two major criticisms. The first is that the amount of sunscreen used by manufacturers to determine SPF values is not consistent with actual use by consumers. In testing, two milligrams of lotion are used for every square centimeter of skin. Scientific American reports that most people use only one fifth to one half of that quantity, meaning that their skin is not fully protected at the labeled SPF level. Secondly, the FDA assumes for designation purposes that consumers will always follow the directions on their sunscreen products. In practice, sunscreen users fail to reapply as often as directed (which is at least every two hours during sun exposure).

Even with these limitations, the new system is a marked improvement to the 1978 regulations. Consumers can protect themselves even before the new regulations take effect in 2012– the FDA recommends that individuals use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 and a broad spectrum rating to protect from the full range of sunlight. In addition to purchasing the right sunscreen products and following directions, the FDA encourages that people wear proper clothing and limit sun exposure to help protect skin from UV rays.


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