H5N1 Bird Flu Research Resumes After Threat Of Bioterrorism Passes
January 24, 2013

H5N1 Bird Flu Research Resumes After Threat Of Bioterrorism Passes

Connie K. Ho for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

A moratorium on bird flu studies was ended on Wednesday, allowing scientists to return to their research on the H5N1 bird flu; previously, there had been fears of bioterrorism at the international level.

The studies were first halted in January 2012 following the creation of mutant forms at the University of Wisconsin in the United States and the Dutch Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam — with widespread worry regarding the direct transmission of the mutant forms to mammals or among people.

According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), avian flu is caused by avian influenza A viruses that occur naturally among birds. Avian flu is especially contagious among domesticated birds and can cause certain domesticated bird species to become very sick, even proving fatal. If there is an outbreak of avian flu among poultry, people can possibly be infected by contact with infected birds or surfaces that have been contaminated by excretions or secretions from infected birds.

The researchers stated that they would begin to conduct research in countries where they had the go-ahead and in research centers that were the most secure. Even though the studies on the avian flu strain may be risky, the group believes that the knowledge reaped from the research will be extremely beneficial.

According to Reuters, laboratories in the Netherlands have given the go-ahead; laboratory research elsewhere around the world, including in the U.S. and at U.S.-funded facilities, is still pending until further safety and security guidelines have been approved.

"We want the world to be better prepared than we currently are when an H5N1 virus causes a pandemic," Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a researcher on avian flu at Tokyo University, told Reuters. "We understand the risks associated with our research and we take every precaution to conduct H5N1 virus experiments safely."

At a teleconference, Kawaoka mentioned that the research could increase work on developing early warning systems, otherwise known as “biosurveillance,” as well as improved medications and vaccines.

A letter signed by 40 researchers from Britain, China, Canada, Hong Kong, the Netherlands and the United States was jointly published in the journals Nature and Science.

"This research - as with any work on infectious agents - is not without risks,” wrote the Italian and German investigators in a report by AFP. "However, because the risk exists in nature that an H5N1 virus capable of transmission in mammals may emerge, the benefits of this work outweigh the risks."

Following the end of the moratorium on avian flu research, there has been wide debate on the extent that scientists can manipulate infections for their studies.

“The laboratories have expanded on their containment and security system ... and I think the value of the results has been recognized," noted John McCauley, director of the World Health Organization (WHO) center that collaborates on flu research with Britain's National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR).

Some have shown concern on whether the research should take place at all.

"These are not bad people, they are good people with good intentions, but they look through rose-colored glasses at the security of the laboratories,” Robert May, a professor at the University of Oxford and the Royal Society´s former president, told the BBC. "That's why I feel the world is a safer place if we maintain this moratorium."

Other individuals have said that they would start their studies anew as the research is particularly important.

"This research is urgent, while we are having this pause bird flu virus continues to evolve in nature and we need to continue this research,” commented Ron Fouchier, a researcher from the Erasmus Medical Centre, in an article by the BBC. "We cannot wait for another year or two years."