H5N1 influenza research moratorium ends

Researchers say they will resume avian flu research

A self-imposed moratorium by researchers on certain kinds of avian influenza experiments is lifting January 23.

In January 2012, influenza researchers imposed a halt on work that would make bird flu viruses that are easily transmissible in mammals. The moratorium came after controversy surrounded two scientific papers describing mutations in the H5N1 avian influenza virus; the mutations made the virus spread among ferrets via airborne droplets. The scientists chose to stop work until they could explain its benefits and safety to the public, and to give governments and funding agencies a chance to review policies surrounding the research. The halt was supposed to last 60 days, but has extended for a year due to the complicated issues surrounding the research.

Now, the same group of 40 researchers is declaring in a letter published online by both Nature and Science that the goals of the moratorium have been met and that work on the viruses may resume in countries with appropriate policies in place. The United States is not among those countries.

The researchers say they are confident that imposing multiple safety measures can prevent an accidental or malicious release of the virus. “There can never be zero risk,” said Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Tokyo, but scientists can minimize the risks. Meanwhile, the virus continues to mutate in nature, and some of the mutations identified in the laboratory studies have already been found in wild H5N1 viruses. With resumption of the work, researchers say they can monitor which strains are developing dangerous mutations, identify new mutations and test vaccines and antiviral drugs.

“We believe this research is important to pandemic preparedness,” Kawaoka said. He and Ron Fouchier, an influenza researcher from Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, led the research that originally touched off the controversy.

In that work, Fouchier’s group found that five to nine mutations could transform the H5N1 virus from one that affects birds to one that infects ferrets, which are popular stand-ins for people in flu research. Kawaoka’s group made similar discoveries using a hybrid of the avian influenza virus and a flu virus that infects people. A U.S. government advisory panel originally deemed both findings too dangerous to publish because of the fear that terrorist groups or rogue governments could use the information to develop biological weapons. The panel later reversed the decision and the papers were published last summer.

Although the United States is still working out its guidelines for the research, China, Canada and countries in the European Union have already decided to go ahead, reasoning that the potential benefits outweigh the risks. Fouchier defended the decision to go ahead without the largest funder of infectious disease research. “If this had been the Netherlands,” Fouchier asked, “would the U.S. wait?”

The United States is just weeks away from having its own guidelines for avian influenza research, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “We’re in the process of saying what we will fund or not fund.” The framework emerged from a meeting in December and public comment on the proposal that ended January 10. Final revisions and approval are under way, Fauci says. 

Fauci stresses that the U.S. government is not holding researchers back from their work. “The government doesn’t have a moratorium,” he says. When the researchers’ moratorium lifts, NIH will evaluate proposals on a case-by-case basis, he says. When the moratorium went into effect, only four or five research groups were conducting studies aimed at discovering what it takes for bird viruses to morph into human flus. “This is really a small slice of research,” Fauci says.

Tina Hesman Saey

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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