Controversial bird flu study resumed

Thu, Jan 24, 2013, 00:00

Influenza scientists around the world have resumed studies into how to make a deadly bird flu virus even more dangerous by helping it jump across into mammals. They are lifting a year-long voluntary moratorium, arguing they have “a public health responsibility to resume this important work”.

Researchers in the US and Netherlands caused an international sensation a year ago when they announced research into the dangerous H5N1 avian flu virus, with plans to publish the research in two leading journals, Science and Nature.

The labs developed ways to help the lethal bird flu jump directly across into ferrets. This immediately sparked concerns about what would happen if the ferrets escaped or the modified virus transferred into humans.

The scientists wanted to publish full details about their methods, but this was challenged with arguments that the information could be used by “bioterrorists”. Members of the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended the research results be published but without the details about how it was accomplished.


In response, influenza scientists agreed to a 60-day moratorium, publishing their reasons in the two journals. They agreed to halt the research despite their contention that it provided “critical information that advances our understanding of influenza transmission”.

The halt was later extended and during the year scientists and regulators in a number of countries developed tighter controls on how to conduct such research. The World Health Organisation also issued recommendations on bio-safety. This encouraged the original research teams to lift the moratorium this week.

It only applied in countries where scientists and regulators had agreed safety procedures, the Dutch and US scientists said in a letter published this morning by Nature and Science.

Work should not yet resume in countries where safety agrement had not been reached. “At this time, this includes the United States and US-funded research conducted in other countries,” the authors write.

The scientists argue that they have a responsibility to continue this work to learn how some flu viruses jump species and become highly virulent and readily transmissible.

There was no doubt that the flu research “developed our understanding of infectivity and how the virus spreads”, said Dr Jeff Connell, assistant director of the UCD National Viral Reference Laboratory.

It would take considerable scientific expertise to make changes in a flu virus in this way, reducing the risk of bioterrorism, he said.