Bird flu debate: Should H5N1 experiments resume?

October 13, 2012 by Eryn Brown

Virologists making mutated versions of the H5N1 bird flu halted their research in January after a U.S. government advisory panel suggested that their work, though well-intentioned, had the potential to endanger the public.

That voluntary moratorium was intended to last 60 days. Nearly nine months later, it remains in place, and scientists are still hashing out if, when and how the research might resume. In a series of essays commissioned this week by mBio, a journal published by the American Society for Microbiology, key players in the controversy set out their thoughts on the matter.

First, a brief review of the controversy: has been circulating in parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East for more than a decade, resulting in the deaths of millions of , and other fowl. It's rare in humans and does not appear to pass easily from person to person. But when does strike in people, it is often deadly.

Virologists were concerned that if did evolve to become contagious in people, it could trigger a devastating pandemic. To see how easy it might be for that to happen, they decided to test the virus' ability to become transmissible in ferrets, a lab whose response is similar to ours. Last winter, reports began to emerge that two teams had engineered versions of H5N1 in the lab that passed through the air between ferrets and sickened them.

Before long, some began to worry about what might happen if the mutated viruses were to escape the lab. Also of concern: whether terrorists or other mischief-makers could use the content of the yet-to-be-published papers to make and unleash their own . The moratorium on publication and research was intended to let everyone step back and figure out how to go on with the work - which could help fight outbreaks in the future, proponents said - while protecting the public.

The journals wound up publishing the research several months later. In May, Nature released a study led by University of Wisconsin virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, which reported developing a hybrid bird flu that could pass between ferrets. In June, Science published a paper by Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier and colleagues showing that mutated H5N1 could pass between and, when administered directly to the animals, occasionally proved deadly. At the time, policymakers and scientists took time to debate how to continue with the work, with some calling for strict controls on the H5N1 work moving forward and others urging self-regulation by researchers.  

This time around, in the mBio essays, the experts touch on many of the same issues. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., writes that the moratorium "should continue, pending the resolution of critical policy questions." Infectious disease experts Marc Lipsitch and Barry R. Bloom of the Harvard School of Public Health advocate specific, "explicit risk benefit assessments" before scientists are permitted to work on potentially dangerous pathogens like H5N1.

An essay coauthored by Fouchier and Kawaoka, with researcher Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, argues that research that has already received approval should be permitted to resume.

"It is unreasonable to extend the pause on H5N1 transmission research until every country has made a final decision" on how to proceed, they wrote. "To contribute meaningfully to preparedness, we need to conduct more experiments to better understand transmission of H5N1 viruses in mammals, in a timely manner."

For now, the work remains at a halt. As of Wednesday, the World Health Organization reported that 359 people had died between 2003 and 2012 after catching H5N1 - nearly 60 percent of confirmed cases.

Explore further: Bird flu can transmit in mammals, study finds

Related Stories

Bird flu can transmit in mammals, study finds

May 4, 2012
In a long-awaited study that helped prompt a contentious debate over the wisdom of conducting research that has the potential to help as well as harm, scientists reported Wednesday that they had engineered a mutant strain ...

Dutch okays mutant bird flu study's publication

April 27, 2012
The Dutch government on Friday gave a top scientist the green light to publish a research paper in the United States on a mutant killer flu virus, following approval by a US panel of experts.

Mutant bird flu 'less lethal', says paper's author

April 3, 2012
The author of a paper on a mutant bird flu strain said Monday that experts agreed to publish it only after he explained that the virus was "much less lethal" than previously feared.

Research on enhanced transmissibility in H5N1 influenza: Should the moratorium end?

October 9, 2012
How can scientists safely conduct avian flu research if the results could potentially threaten, as well as save, millions of lives? In a series of commentaries appearing on Tuesday, October 9 in mBio, the online open-access ...

Flu transmission work is urgent: Nature Comment

January 25, 2012
The author of an upcoming Nature paper about H5N1 argues in a Nature Comment article today that research into deadly pathogenic viruses must continue if pandemics are to be prevented. Yoshihiro Kawaoka suggests, after reviewing ...

Divides emerge in US, world response to mutant flu

February 29, 2012
A divide has emerged between the United States and the rest of the world on whether to publish or keep secret the details of an engineered mutant bird flu virus that can pass in the air between animals, health experts said ...

Recommended for you

New breast cell types discovered by multidisciplinary research team

November 20, 2017
A joint effort by breast cancer researchers and bioinformaticians has provided new insights into the molecular changes that drive breast development.

Brain cell advance brings hope for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

November 20, 2017
Scientists have developed a new system to study Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in the laboratory, paving the way for research to find treatments for the fatal brain disorder.

Hibernating ground squirrels provide clues to new stroke treatments

November 17, 2017
In the fight against brain damage caused by stroke, researchers have turned to an unlikely source of inspiration: hibernating ground squirrels.

Molecular guardian defends cells, organs against excess cholesterol

November 16, 2017
A team of researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health has illuminated a critical player in cholesterol metabolism that acts as a molecular guardian in cells to help maintain cholesterol levels within a safe, ...

Prototype ear plug sensor could improve monitoring of vital signs

November 16, 2017
Scientists have developed a sensor that fits in the ear, with the aim of monitoring the heart, brain and lungs functions for health and fitness.

Ancient enzyme could boost power of liquid biopsies to detect and profile cancers

November 16, 2017
Scientists are developing a set of medical tests called liquid biopsies that can rapidly detect the presence of cancers, infectious diseases and other conditions from only a small blood sample. Researchers at The University ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (1) Oct 13, 2012
It's good to see that they're taking this so seriously. I suspect the conclusions they reach will have wide-ranging effects on other, similar research programs.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 13, 2012
I wish we were this cautious of all genetic research. Clearly, these guys aren't owned or funded by Monsanto.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.