Moratorium on influenza H5N1 transmission research

20 January 2012

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.

Related:

Palese: Don’t censor live-saving science
N.Y. Times: H5N1 ferret research should not have been done
Should we fear avian H5N1 influenza?
A bad day for science
Ferreting out influenza H5N1

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  • Anna

    I’m reading an article in the New York Times right now:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/21/science/scientists-to-pause-research-on-deadly-strain-of-bird-flu.html
    It states:
    Scientists are split regarding the research, with some praising it as
    important and urging that it be published, and others saying the
    experiments are so dangerous that they should never have been done. 

    In your estimation, is this an accurate statement? I remember all the flak a lot of science writers got when they were often giving “equal time” to climate-change deniers, making the controversy seems more pronounced than it actually was. Not being in the scientific community, just an interested observer, I’m curious to know how much of a controversy this is among people who are more educated about the implications of this research.

  • Tony Mach

    I have argued along these lines before:
    The argument the media has made was that ruthless dictators and terror-organizations could use this research to target humans. Well, if these ruthless terrorists exists (and the fear-mongering media seems convinced that they do actually exists) that could use such a research, they could as well make that kind of research themselves, and furthermore they could use humans instead of ferrets. 

    Will these terrorists, as postulated by the media, participate in such a moratorium? So if there is anything to learn before others (who might want to harm us) could learn that too, the press has decided it is better that we not learn it and leave the field to terrorists? What a wacky position the media has chosen to maintain.

    And not to forget that these pathways are not shut to evolution itself (how could they?) and we are needlessly blinding ourselves.

    What a giant mess, created mainly by the idiotic press, who are in search of artificial scandals while they ignore the real ones.

  • Buendiaenr

    La gripa se quita tomando un troso de sábila molida con un poco de agua (colar) y tomar como 0.5 litros en un solo momento, si en la tarde estas ya con todos los sintomas de esta, despues de tomar sábila al otro día se te quita. Resultado los fluidos mucosos salen con un poco de burbujas y los sintomas desaparecen, despues de unas horas estas curado.

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    I do not believe that the NY Times did much research to arrive at their conclusion that scientists are ‘split’ regarding the research. They probably spoke with four individuals and got two on one side and two on the other. I know of seventeen virologists who are for publication of the H5N1 findings (the letter sent to the NSABB http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2012/01/prominent-virologists-want-us.html) and I can find many others. There are some who are opposed; Robert Webster, for example, who works on the virus and has always trumpeted its great danger as a way to secure funding. Others are simply not well informed and don’t have the data to make a decision. And of course the bioterrorism specialists – to the one they are opposed. But they are not scientists because they don’t do the research. 

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