Research on lab-engineered strains of the H5N1 bird flu virus is set to restart a year after the scientists voluntarily paused it to allow for an international public debate on the safest way to proceed.
Last year, two teams of scientists in the United States and the Netherlands submitted papers for publication in Science and Nature describing how they had engineered the H5N1 bird flu virus – which kills half of the people it infects but cannot naturally transmit from person to person – to spread more easily between mammals.
The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity said that the papers were too dangerous to publish in their original form and demanded that sections of the results be deleted to prevent the information falling into the wrong hands.
That sparked a debate on how “dual-use” research should be handled: whether the results should be published in full to help public health officials prepare for future pandemics that might emerge – in this case if the bird flu virus mutated naturally – or whether some of the details should be kept secret in order to prevent them falling into the hands of bioterrorists.
In January 2012, scientists agreed to a moratorium on research involving lab-created versions of the H5N1 flu virus while scientists, regulators and security experts worked out how best to conduct and publish the work.
A year of discussions and considerations of safety protocols later, that moratorium has now come to an end. In a letter published on Thursday in Nature, the lead researchers involved in working on the engineered flu virus said that the pause in research had been useful in that it provided time to communicate the public health benefits of the work and decide how to minimise the risks.
The letter’s signatories are Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Adolfo García-Sastre of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Wisconsin, and the University of Tokyo, Japan.
The three scientists, writing on behalf of 40 co-authors, said that the past year had seen the benefits of the work on H5N1 explained clearly in publications and meetings and that measures to mitigate the possible risks of the work had been detailed. The World Health Organization (WHO) and many individual countries have also produced safety guidelines for people conducting research on lab-modified H5N1 viruses.
On Cryptogon: H5N1
One Response to “Bird Flu Researchers to Continue Work on Engineered Virus”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.