In letters to Science and Nature, the authors of the controversial avian H5N1 influenza virus transmission experiments in ferrets, together with other influenza virologists, have agreed to a 60 day moratorium on transmission research:
…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.
They write that research will continue on assessing the “transmissibility of H5N1 influenza viruses that emerge in nature and pose a continuing threat to human health”.
This research is being halted because of the concerns that ferret-transmissible H5N1 viruses may escape from laboratories. They argue that the finding in two laboratories that viruses with a hemagglutinin (HA) protein from highly pathogenic avian H5N1 influenza viruses can become transmissible in ferrets advances our understanding of influenza transmission. Nevertheless,
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. We propose to do so in an international forum in which the scientific community comes together to discuss and debate these issues.
I agree in principle with this decision, because the argument over this research has become increasingly polarized in recent weeks, with a distressing demarcation between those who believe the work should proceed, and those who feel it should not be done. A dialogue to identify the crucial issues and develop plans to address them, while continuing this important line of research, is certainly welcome.
I am curious to see who will participate in the proposed dialogue. I do hope it will be a balanced forum: a fair mix of microbiologists, especially those working on influenza virus, and those interested in biosecurity. As I have said before, scientists will listen to the policy analysts, but the latter must also understand the science.
Update: Alan Dove has written an honest analysis of the moratorium announcement.