Controversial bird flu papers fly

But research freeze holds


Bird flu researchers started the year with a self-imposed moratorium on work deemed too dangerous for public consumption. That ban was supposed to last just 60 days, but as the year ends, the research is still on hold. And scientists have been left debating whether it makes sense in the first place to do research that, in the wrong hands, could spread a deadly disease.

A U.S. biosecurity advisory board initially recommended against publishing two papers detailing how to create a more transmissible form of H5N1 bird flu (text of one paper in illustration). The board later reversed its decision. Dan Page

The halt was called in response to two controversial studies in which scientists created mutated versions of the H5N1 avian flu virus. Unlike the original, the engineered versions could pass through the air between ferrets, common stand-ins for humans in influenza research. A U.S. government advisory panel decided there was a danger that terrorists might use information from the studies to create and unleash a deadly flu pandemic.

In the studies, two teams coaxed versions of H5N1 to evolve in the lab by passing them from ferret to ferret until the viruses could spread on their own when the animals sneezed or coughed. Initially it appeared that the virus in one lab was both infectious and deadly, prompting the government advisory panel to recommend that neither of the two papers describing the work be published in full. That ruling was reversed in March, and both papers were published in June, one in Nature (SN Online: 5/2/12) and the other in Science (SN: 7/14/12, p. 8).

The decision to allow publication ultimately came down to whether ferrets in Ron Fouchier’s lab at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands lived or died when infected with the airborne version of the virus. Perhaps no animal’s fate has come under as much scrutiny since Schrödinger’s hypothetical cat.

A majority of the 23 panel members concluded that because the ferrets survived, the mutated virus did not pose an immediate threat. Those researchers also thought publishing both papers might give public health officials the tools to more quickly spot burgeoning pandemics and to speed the development of vaccines and antiviral medications.

But six outvoted panel members disagreed. A paper by Yoshihiro Kawaoka’s group at the University of Wisconsin–Madison posed no immediate danger, they agreed, but Fouchier’s work presented a possibility for abuse. These panel members recommended making available only a redacted version of Fouchier’s results that excluded virtually everything but the finding that the virus could become airborne.

The complexities of working with influenza viruses almost ensure that anyone hoping to create a biological weapon from the flu would need specialized training. But anyone who has the skills to create a deadly airborne avian flu could make their own version without knowing what the two research groups found. And the flu would make an unwieldy weapon, one nearly impossible to control.

The initial concern over the two papers led the U.S. government to revise its policy on dual-use research, which is basic research that could be bent to nefarious purposes. In February, the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity made recommendations on ways to strengthen codes of conduct for researchers performing such work.

The moratorium was initiated by 39 influenza researchers, including Fouchier and Kawaoka, and prohibits work that makes H5N1 spread more easily or increases its virulence, called gain-of-function experiments. Such research remains hotly debated among scientists, public health officials, security experts and others. This summer the U.S. government proposed an indefinite continuation of the work stoppage.

As editor of the journal mBio, microbiologist Arturo Casadevall of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City commissioned a series of essays about H5N1 research. Fouchier, Kawaoka and a colleague argued in the journal that the research should go forward because it would produce valuable knowledge about how flu viruses adapt to mammals and how to stop their spread. Other researchers weighed in on safety measures to contain the viruses in the laboratory.

“We need to ask the scientists a question that hasn’t really been answered yet,” Casadevall says. “Is the information we get from gain-of-function experiments critical for moving forward? If so, can we get the information any other way?”

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Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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