Emerging Infectious Diseases: Guiding the Global Scientific Agenda

 

When the world became aware of a mysterious pneumonia called severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emerging in China in February of 2003, the New York Academy of Sciences quickly convened a meeting of 18 scientists and physicians from academia, government, and the pharmaceutical industry to share information.

With its interdisciplinary—and international—Membership, the Academy specializes in bringing together leading experts and providing a neutral meeting ground for diverse perspectives. And we have a long history of rapid response to new developments in medicine and health, efforts that have included path-breaking conferences on antibiotics in 1946, and AIDS in 1983. The SARS meeting that took place at the Academy on May 17, 2003, was organized in only a few weeks, with sponsorship from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

With this conference the Academy also kicked off an expanded commitment to initiating scientific discussion on emerging infectious disease threats to global public health. The SARS meeting marked the launch of eBriefings—a vehicle for helping worldwide audiences keep abreast of the new research discussed. eBriefings feature media from speakers’ presentations such as slides, audio, meeting summaries, and links to related resources. When posted, the SARS eBriefing was one of the most comprehensive online resources for the latest SARS information at the time.

Six years later, in 2009, this meeting served as a model for the Academy’s response to H1N1—the swine influenza outbreak first recorded in Mexico in March of that year. Even before the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic, the Academy brought together a panel of vaccine experts, epidemiologists, and policymakers to discuss the novel influenza strain.

On May 28, 2009, this group shared data and explored strategies for fighting the virus. Through a podcast, video interviews with meeting participants, and other web-based information, the Academy kept its far-flung Members, and the wider public, informed. Following up a year later, the Academy hosted a landmark symposium to take stock of the H1N1 outbreak, progress in understanding its pathogenicity and transmission, and strategies for confronting new pandemics.

Sharing such information is the primary purpose of the Academy’s cross-disciplinary meetings. Yet limits on sharing information—or more precisely, publishing key scientific results—was at the crux of a February 2012 meeting on H5N1, an influenza virus that causes highly infectious disease in birds but is only occasionally contracted by people. Two months earlier, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) had requested that the journals Science and Nature remove details related to virus transmission from two in-press articles on H5N1. This unprecedented move shone a spotlight on conflicts between academic freedom and the risks of accidental or intentional flu outbreaks—so-called dual use research.

Once again, the Academy provided a meeting place where diverse stakeholders could take part in an open conversation, and the results, along with copious resources, were quickly disseminated to Academy Members.

Outbreaks of new and virulent infectious diseases pose a major threat to public health around the globe. With the leadership provided by our Microbiology & Infectious Diseases Discussion Group, the Academy remains committed to bringing timely attention to these pathogens, and to fostering collaboration among basic, clinical, academic and industry scientists, as well as other experts and public health officials.