End of moratorium on influenza H5N1 research

23 January 2013

In early 2012 influenza virus researchers around the world decided to stop working on highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 virus. This decision came after work from the Fouchier and Kawaoka laboratories revealed the isolation of influenza H5N1 strains that can be passed among ferrets by aerosol. The moratorium on influenza H5N1 virus research has now been lifted, as described in a letter from influenza virologists to Science and Nature.

Lifting the embargo on H5N1 research is an important step forward for understanding what regulates influenza transmission. In my view it was an ill-conceived move, done to quell the growing concern over the adaptation of influenza H5N1 virus to aerosol transmission in ferrets. We now know that these viruses are not lethal for ferrets, and much of the outrage expressed about this work was misguided. In my view the moratorium has accomplished little other than delaying the conduct of important virology research.

According to the influenza virus researchers who signed on to the moratorium, its purpose was to:

…provide time to explain the public-health benefits of this work, to describe the measures in place to minimize pos- sible risks, and to enable organizations and governments around the world to review their policies (for example on biosafety, biosecurity, oversight, and communication) regarding these experiments.

An important consideration is the level of containment that will be required for studying influenza H5N1 transmission. WHO has released recommendations on risk control measures for H5N1 research, and individual countries will decided how to proceed. The US has not yet made a decision on the level of containment needed for H5N1 virus transmission research. Influenza virologists who participated in the moratorium have their own view:

We consider biosafety level 3 conditions with the considerable enhancements (BSL-3+) outlined in the referenced publications (11–13) as appropriate for this type of work, but recognize that some countries may require BSL-4 conditions in ac- cordance with applicable standards (such as Canada).

Their last statement forms the crux of the issue on H5N1 transmission research:

We fully acknowledge that this research—as with any work on infectious agents—is not without risks. 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.

  • gsgs

    That “crux” is logically absurd and demonstrates the incompetence
    and non-science of the whole discussion process.

    > We fully acknowledge that this research—as with any work on infectious

    > agents— is not without risks. 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.

    How can you conclude which of 2 points outweigh the
    other

    by just listing them without any attempt to weigh them ?

  • Elizabeth_Hart

    Professor Racaniello, you say: “We now know these viruses are not lethal for ferrets…”

    Please remember it was Ron Fouchier who beat this story up in the first place at the European Scientific Working Group on Influenza (ESWI) meeting in Malta in September 2011, when he announced his team had “mutated the hell out of H5N1″ and warned that “this is a very dangerous virus”.(1) Fouchier subsequently did a 180 degree turnaround on his claims when the solids hit the air-conditioning…

    The ESWI is a partnership organisation including manufacturers of influenza vaccines and antiviral drugs. So what was the motive for Fouchier’s fear-mongering at this meeting do you think? Fouchier appears to have escaped reprimand for his actions. Do you think this episode has put scientists in a good light and inspired confidence in the general public?

    As for your statement that “much of the outrage expressed about this work was misguided”, I disagree. What this debacle has exposed is that scientists are engineering possible dangerous pathogens with completely inadequate ethical oversight. It seems to me that because these people are using animals in their experiments, rather than human subjects, effective ethical processes have fallen through the cracks, despite the fact that these engineered pathogens could have potentially devastating effects on human populations outside the lab.

    So what now after this fear-mongering? As you say: “We now know these viruses are not lethal for ferrets…” So what is the justification for continuing to fling money at this very questionable research?

    Also, given that flu viruses are mutating all the time, should we accept that flu is not a vaccinable disease, and look at other strategies to deal with flu?

    For further background, here are links to two of my letters on this topic, i.e.

    – A submission to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) re Opposition to Lab-engineering of Potentially Lethal Pathogens (17 December 2012): http://users.on.net/~peter.hart/Submission_to_CDC_HHS.pdf

    – An open letter to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity re the political and ethical implications of lethal virus development (31 January 2012): http://users.on.net/~peter.hart/Open_Letter_to_Paul_Keim_NSABB_31_Jan_2012.pdf

    Here also is a link to my website on Over-vaccination: http://over-vaccination.net/ which challenges Big Pharma’s lucrative over-vaccination of people and animals. It’s about time people started looking at the ‘big picture’ on this…

    Ref 1: Katherine Harmon. What Really Happened in Malta This September When Contagious Bird Flu Was Announced. Scientific American. December 30 2011: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2011/12/30/what-really-happened-in-malta-this-september-when-contagious-bird-flu-was-first-announced/

  • Pingback: Friday Coffee Break: snail coauthors, rejection letters, Swiss cheese plants, and more « Nothing in biology makes sense!

  • Pingback: The risks and benefits of influenza H5N1 research

  • Danilo Tancler Stipp

    The benefits of H5N1 researchs are extremelly superior than risks. The headlines are unbelievable, specially considering the Nature comment. As a brazilian virologist, it sounds like watching an E! theme (note: I’ve never watched stuff like this).