The scientists behind a pair of controversial research projects designed to make a deadly strain of bird flu more contagious have agreed to halt their work for 60 days in order to allow experts to determine whether or not the research could lead to a global pandemic or a possible bioterrorism threat.
A letter announcing the decision, authored by the three scientists behind the two studies — Ron Fouchier, Adolfo GarcÃa-Sastre, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka — and three dozen other top influenza researchers was published Friday in the journals Science and Nature, Denise Grady of the New York Times reported. Both scientific journals will also publish reports on the research in an edited form so that the work cannot be reproduced, Grady added.
“The continuous threat of an influenza pandemic represents one of the biggest challenges in public health,” the authors of the letters wrote. “Recent research breakthroughs identified specific determinants of transmission of H5N1 influenza viruses in ferrets. Responsible research on influenza virus transmission using different animal models is conducted by multiple laboratories in the world using the highest international standards of biosafety and biosecurity practices that effectively prevent the release of transmissible viruses from the laboratory.”
The studies, which were conducted separately at labs in the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Erasmus MC in the Netherlands, discovered that viruses that contained a hemagglutinin (HA) protein from the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus could be transmitted by ferrets. They called that discovery “critical information that advances our understanding of influenza transmission,” while adding that more research was needed to figure out how flu viruses occurring naturally can become a pandemic threat to mankind.
Karen Herzog and Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the decision to enact the two-month long research freeze came following Wednesday evening and Thursday morning discussions between Fouchier and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony S. Fauci.
The moratorium, Herzog and Johnson added, will give scientists time to schedule an international forum in order to debate and discuss the research, and specifically safety issues associated with the two studies. The meeting could take place as early as next month in Geneva, Switzerland, the Journal Sentinel reported.
“Despite the positive public-health benefits these studies sought to provide, a perceived fear that the ferret-transmissible H5 HA viruses may escape from the laboratories has generated intense public debate in the media on the benefits and potential harm of this type of research. We would like to assure the public that these experiments have been conducted with appropriate regulatory oversight in secure containment facilities by highly trained and responsible personnel to minimize any risk of accidental release,” the researchers wrote in the letter explaining their decision.
They added that they could not test whether or not the altered virus could be transmitted amongst humans.
“We recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks,” they added. “We realize that organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work. To provide time for these discussions, we have agreed on a voluntary pause of 60 days on any research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals. In addition, no experiments with live H5N1 or H5 HA reassortant viruses already shown to be transmissible in ferrets will be conducted during this time.”
Fouchier, who worked on the Netherlands-based experiment, told Martin Enserink of Science that the decision to temporarily halt the research came in the wake of press coverage and political debates, and that various third-party groups — including unspecified governments and the organizations funding their research — advised them to enact the moratorium.
Fouchier also said that they had not been directly threatened with a ban on their work, but that such a move was a possibility “that we can’t rule“¦ out.”
“It’s a pity that it has to come to this,” he added. “I would have preferred if this hadn’t caused so much controversy, but it has happened and we can’t change that. So I think it’s the right step to make.”
Time’s Alice Park points out that this is not the first time that controversial scientific work has been voluntarily postponed. In the early 1970s, the scientists who first successfully took the genes of one species and inserted them into the genome of a different one temporarily paused their research over concerns that it could lead to the creation of mutant creatures of genetic monsters, she said.
“Following the voluntary research stoppage, the National Institutes of Health convened a committee to advise the government on how to regulate research in the field responsibly, without impinging on the forward momentum represented by the science,” Park added. “The researchers met themselves, at the Asilomar Conference in 1975, to provide their own proposals for how the work should continue. Today, such recombinant DNA studies are the foundation of experiments in infectious disease and cancer.”
On the Net:
- University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Erasmus MC
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)