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TWiV 171 Letters

Daniel writes:

Dear TWIVers,

Great podcasts. I've listened to them all (TWIV/TWIP/TWIM).

(insert required adulation)

I enjoyed this and figured you might as well. Takes a bit to load, but it is worth it.

Thank you all for donating so much of your time for all of our entertainment and education.

Tom writes:

Subject: Nonscientific hypothesis to explain H5N1 claims.

Hi Twivarians,

Old trick to find enemy activity in an area of scientific research:

- Claim a useful result that 'just works' but really doesn't.

- Trace the enemy signals when they test it.

Imagine it's possible to monitor ferrets or some other signal:

- Track ferrets going to the bad guys.

- The voluntary moratorium and higher BSL requirements cut down the noise.

Big downsides for scientists in this scheme:

- Can't promote a good idea, or the enemy might make it work.

- Need a way to drop the idea, or risk becoming a Duesberg.

Thanks for the enthusiasm, conversation, knowledge, ideas and great audio!

My health span will end someday, but with your help it won't be from a microbe.



With trepidation I took the survey. I thought it was going to include virology questions (what's your favorite sequencing service?) or make me feel silly for listening without a formal education in biology (where did you get your PhD?). But the questions were about if I buy stuff that I hear about on podcasts. Easy! Short answer: yes. Long answer: hell yes!

Laurieann writes:

Dear TWIVers,

They say that any press is good press and while the hype concerning Fouchier's virus is overblown and unfounded, it is heartening to know that the general public has an interest in knowing what virology researchers do and how it might impact them. It’s exciting to hear students chatting about the supervirulent virus and engaging in virology in ways that I can only hope to achieve in the classroom. Thought you might be interested in the attached editorial written by science writer, Laurie Garrett about government regulations on synthetic biology using Fouchier’s experiment as an example.

keep up the great work- I started listening to TWIV as a postdoc back when the episode numbers were in the “teens” and haven’t missed an episode since!


Clinical Assistant Professor

Marquette University

Joe writes:

I started listening to TWIV around no. 40. I enjoyed it so much that I listened to all previous episodes and haven't missed a new one since. You managed to intrigue me so much about virology that I also listened to your entire course at Columbia (twice), read several virology textbooks and engaged in similar self-study in immunology as background to appreciate the field better. Obviously, I am not a microbiologist. In fact, I am just a lawyer (gasp) although my undergraduate degree was in organic chemistry. But thanks in large part to you, I have developed what I believe is well informed side-interest in the viral world.

All of this is to say that I feel I owe you a debt of gratitude. And it is for that reason, and also so that you might take my feedback more seriously, that I am writing you a private email as opposed to simply posting my concerns as a comment on the TWIV site.

For the first time in hundreds of hours of listening to TWIV, during TWIV 169, I actually felt like shutting down my browser right in the middle. In particular, I was completely turned off by the group's discussion of the NYAS H5N1 dual use forum. It is not that I even disagree with you on the merits of whether or not the details of the Fouchier research should be released. But the disdain and contempt the TWIVers showed for those who disagreed with them, especially Michael Osterholm, was unbecoming.

I have followed the recent dual use research debate and watched the 2-hour NYAS forum. Michael Osterholm might be wrong, but he struck me as sincere and entirely motivated by a genuine desire to discharge his mandate to the best of his ability. Yet the TWIVers were uncharacteristically hostile to him in particular and the other side more generally to the point of even impugning their good faith. There seemed to be no recognition that the NSABB is charged with a horrible responsibility, one which you have the luxury not to bear but just peck at. Instead there was just scoffing at their consideration of unquantifiable risks as fear mongering. And I don't think you in particular, Vince, were fair in your selective quotations and summary of the event. Your point about the case-fatality rate was obviously right but the show beat that straw horse to death, and you didn't offer much more than a caricature of the other side's arguments. You were all over Osterholm but were strangely silent about Arturo Casadevall who was in substantial agreement with him, but also carries the sort of credentials you seem to respect more.

What the TWIVers displayed in this show was an irony one sometimes sees in highly specialized science experts. They are so meticulous and careful in describing their own fields, the precise extent of their knowledge and the limited conclusions that can be drawn from their research. They are hyper-vigilant of outsiders misunderstanding the implications of their work or making exaggerated claims about it. Yet if their interest is piqued in an area outside their chosen fields, especially in policy or political issues that might affect them or their work, they will generalize and make sweeping conclusions and pronouncements with the best of them, assuming knowledge and judgment about outside matters (like national security) that would cause them to breathe fire if an outsider did the same in their field. [I have also been reading a lot of cognitive psychology lately, which has inspired me to call this phenomenon the "hubris heuristic".]

In fact, that whole part of TWIV 169 had a polemical flavor I'm quite used to as a lawyer but which I dabble in science to escape. How disappointing. One of my favorite things you did on your show back in the early days was ban the occasional political witticism (usually from Dickson and usually aimed at Bush). Maybe you can renew that wise impulse at this time.



PS. I was also really looking forward to the focus on viral epidemiology, hoping that the show would shed some light on some areas I still scratch my head about -- like how herd immunity is estimated for different pathogenic viruses. Maybe next time.

Stefan writes:

I also watched the New York Academy of Sciences hosts a panel of leading scientists, publishers, and ethicists who discuss issues surrounding controversial H5N1 research, which you were a part of (

Dr Fouchier's research pinpointed a threat that mankind was not aware off and thanks to their findings we have been given the chance to act on it ahead of time. I think that Dr. Fouchiers findings should be made accessible to the public and the recombinant virus be shared with select research groups. With the extensive global effort to study influenza, there may already be other labs that also introduced similar mutations into influenza without checking them in ferrets, these people need to know.

The discussion, whether ferrets are a good model is futile, they are only a model, they may lie, they may exaggerate, they may even be precise, we cannot possible know - only guess. The only thing we know is, If ferrets are a good model this is very bad news. The question now is not IF but WHEN a human-transmissible H5N1 appears in the wild. May it be by nature, may it be by hand of a terrorist with a foreign or not so foreign name, or may it be by escaping from a research-lab. Dr. Osterholm mentioned we cannot be wrong on the risk we take studying this virus, but what about the risk NOT studying this virus ? Nature is the fiercest bioterrorist imaginable. Which risk is bigger the chance of this virus escape man-made or the virus appear nature-made ? I cannot predict the risk of the virus being released man-made but the epidemiologists at the CDC surely can predict the risk the virus appear being nature-made using mathematical modeling provided they have all the necessary information. Of course there is a risk of studying this virus, but I sleep better knowing researches do something about it rather than procrastinating the problem until it hits us.

No one can predict the implications of research only history will tell. This current situation is a precedent, so how do we need to learn from it. The role of governments is to protect people i.e. promoting research to develop vaccines and to provide and enforce guidelines to conduct research in a safe way. The role of the scientist is to conduct research in a responsible way, which relies on the freedom and duty to discuss findings publicly and being peer-reviewed. The role of publishers is to provide this platform. This system works if governments act on their responsibility to promote and fund vaccination research. This system works when scientists are well educated, are peer-reviewed, and discuss their findings publicly, this system works if publishers provide editorial guidance to provide a good quality publication suited for the public. However, this system does not work if politicians publicly scrutinize vaccination and governments inadequately fund research. This system also does not work if scientists proclaim sensational research before being reviewed. And this system does not work if the press publicly discusses, whether something should be published or not.

Sorry I had to get this of my chest ;-) and of course feel free to read/post this on TWIV.


PS I am still doing some research for a poliovirus lecture and stumbled across this wonderful video about Thomas Francis and Jonas Salk. I think this clip reminds us of the forgotten perils of pre-vaccination times and puts things in perspective. Maybe you want to share this on TWIV should there be suitable context. If you find a public relations contact for Delta airlines they may want to replace some of their more recent videos on vaccination:

Hail to the polio pioneers,



I googled for a copy of the uncensored Fouchier paper before the press frenzy and there were links that claimed to contain a a draft of the original manuscript. I have not verified or read any of them but it is only a matter of time before this information gets in the wrong hands. The good thing now is that it will be almost impossible to find this among all the comments and tweets about this subject. Mission accomplished ;-)


Stefan Taube, PhD

University of Michigan Medical School

Department of Microbiology and Immunology


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