Public Concern Prompts Pause in Bird Flu Research


Home / Public Concern Prompts Pause in Bird Flu Research

Influenza researcher inside biological safety cabinet (BSC): Photo Credit: Greg Knobioch, courtesy of the CDC

UPDATED February 3, 2012.

On January 20, 2012, 39 principal investigators (PIs) from influenza research laboratories around the world declared a 60-day voluntary moratorium on experiments involving mammalian-transmissible viruses with the hemagglutinin (HA) genes of highly dangerous avian H5N1 viruses. They will, however, continue to investigate the currently non-transmissible “bird flu” viruses reconfiguring in nature which, they say, “pose a continuing threat to human health.”

Word that scientists from two independent research groups were able to manipulate H5 HA-possessing viruses in ways that made them transmissible among ferrets —the models for influenza transmission in mammals— provoked fears that a highly contagious, very deadly virus could escape from the laboratory or, even worse, that it would be used by bioterrorists.

The moratorium follows a recommendation by the National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) that two leading journals, Science and Nature, restrict certain details of the studies, including descriptions of the mutations that enable transmission of H5 HA-possessing viruses to ferrets.  This information would be released only to select scientists on a need-to-know basis.

Biosafety secured by strict regulations

Pandemic influenza research is far too dangerous to be done in someone’s garage; the work, by necessity, is conducted in secure containment facilities and these are closely monitored by biosafety authorities. The principal investigators agreeing to the current moratorium assure the public that the studies in question (led by Ron Fouchier Ph.D. at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka DVM, Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the U.S.,  both signatories to the voluntary moratorium) are conducted with appropriate regulatory oversight by highly trained and responsible personnel. However, they recognize the need to clearly explain the importance of their research and the measures in place to minimize the possible risks before proceeding.

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