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Russia Ignores Bio-Threat at Its Peril

Thus far Russia is not ready to address biohazards, Academician Mikhail Paltsev, rector of the Moscow Medical Academy and chairman of the Russian Health Ministry Expert Board, says. He was one of the organizers of the Second International Conference "Molecular Medicine and Biosafety" (Moscow, October 21-22, 2005). The conference, attended by Russia's leading virologists, as well as representatives from the U.S Department of Health and Human Services and the State Department, discussed, among other things, the threat of bird flu in the world.
Is bird flu a real bio-threat?

Photo gallery Seminar "Bioterrorism"

Bird flu exists, and it affects people — mainly those who eat raw poultry. Thus far there has not been a single proven case of bird flu transmission from person to person. Should this happen, mere will be a serious epidemic. The danger lies in the so-called antigenetic drift, when genetic information is exchanged between ordinary flu and bird flu viruses, and the human virus acquires bird-flu characteristics. This new virus can evolve within the organism of a person who has contracted common flu and bird flu simultaneously. This virus will spread through the air. So there are two ways of protection — common vaccines, to reduce the number of ordinary flu cases, and special vaccines.

Will a vaccine be developed by the time an epidemic begins?

Nobody knows when the bird-to-human species barrier will be crossed or whether it will be crossed at all. Science is so far unable either to provide an accurate forecast or to prevent a dangerous situation. Maybe there is still enough time or maybe there is not, so a vaccine must be developed as a matter of urgency. There is no doubt mat it will be eventually created. The flu virus strain has been isolated, and work is in progress in many countries, including Russia. The problem is to launch its production if an epidemic strikes, and produce the vaccine in sufficient quantities.

There have been reports in the media that bird-flu drugs have been developed. Is this true?

As far as I know, there is no proven prescription against this particular disease. Such a drug has to be tested on a large number of people, while there are only a few dozens [of such people] at this stage. This is not enough to prove that a drug is effective.

Substantial investments into biology are required to develop new drugs, vaccines, and other means of protection against bio-threats. How is this field of science being financed, compared to others?

It is very difficult to make any comparisons here since there are no reliable figures in Russia, but the level of funding is clearly insufficient. Here is just one example: Russia has not been producing its own antibiotics for die past two years, while this is one of the main indicators of the status of bio-technology in any country. Any civilized state is supposed to produce them in sufficient quantities since they are the main protection against infections.

An ongoing congress on biotechnology dramatized the bio-tech crisis in Russia. Just like 40 years ago, science in Russia is dominated by physics and nuclear engineering. In other countries, investment in bio-technology has been growing exponentially with the correlation between the biological science and all other sciences reaching 50:50. In Russia, biology has a very low priority.

This is why Russia is extremely vulnerable to bio-threats and is completely . dependent on import. Whereas nuclear security matters have been more or less resolved, the bio-threat has not as yet been fully appreciated. A biosafety doctrine was signed by the president two years ago, but nothing has changed since then. It was also announced that a national biosafety program was being prepared, but it has yet to materialize. Russian state and government officials do not understand that bio-threats, both natural and man-made, are growing every day and that we do not have effective systems to counteract them.

How should a biosafety system be built?

First of all, mere should be permanent monitoring and forecasting of bio-threats. As soon as me United States was faced with bio-terrorism, funding of bio-terror research programs increased sharply. Whereas before 2002, about $40 million a year was provided, in 2002 through 2005, it was $1.8 billion a year (plus about $700 million via the Center for Disease Control and Prevention). A network of laboratories was created, constantly monitoring the appearance and movement of all dangerous bacteria, viruses, and genetically modified organisms (GMO).

Furthermore, there should be a well-developed vaccine production industry. In Russia, this industry needs serious modernization. As is known, flu vaccines are based on chicken embryos, but is there a guarantee that they are not affected by a bird flu virus and that we will not create a dangerous mix in a laboratory? Vaccines should be produced without the use of living matter. Russia only has projects and patents in this field.

State officials ignore the seriousness of the bio-threat. What about scientists?

The latest conference has shown that they do appreciate the threat. Scientists working on the problem have consolidated their ranks. There is a general recognition that bio-threat could become global. For the first time ever, a large group of U.S. scientists and officials from the Department of Health and Human Services and the State Department, including deputy director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, attended a scientific event in Russia.

Unfortunately, there has not as yet been a response from the Russian authorities. There is a theory that the economic crisis in the United States in the late 1920s was in large part caused
by the Spanish flu pandemic. Russian state and government authorities are discussing oil prices, but they fail to realize that two or three epidemics can wipe out the country's population.

Исходная статья: The Moscow News 9-15, ноября 2005