Scientists Agree to Halt Work on Dangerous Bird Flu Strain

H5N1 scientists announce a moratorium on research in order to allow government, scientific and ethics groups to figure out the safest way to proceed.

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Researchers working on the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus have voluntarily agreed to stop their studies for 60 days over concerns that their data could provide a bioterror threat.

In December, scientists from two independent groups, one led by Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and the other by Yoshi Kawaoke at University of Wisconsin, reported that they had successfully manipulated H5N1 — which causes serious illness in birds, but has so far appeared to be less infectious among humans — to make it more virulent.

The strain the researchers created in the lab transmitted easily among ferrets, which suggests that it would behave similarly in humans. Although bird flu typically does not circulate well in people, it is deadly: since the first human cases were documented in Hong Kong in 1997, H5N1 has killed nearly 60% of the 582 humans it has infected.

Fouchier and Kawaoke had planned to publish their new findings in the journals Science and Nature — at least until the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which oversees such research, got involved, asking the researchers and the journal editors to suppress the data and refrain from publishing details of how the killer version of H5N1 was made. Passionate debate ensued. The researchers resisted NSABB’s bidding, and many in the scientific community supported them, saying that the scientific value of their work justified uncensored publication. Only by fully understanding how H5N1 and other strains like it work, many scientists say, can we hope to learn how to create more effective treatments and vaccines against them.

Still, Fouchier, Kawaoke and their supporters appreciate that their findings don’t occur in a vacuum, and 39 scientists have now signed a letter agreeing to suspend all studies on highly virulent H5N1 until scientific, political and ethics leaders are able to discuss the implications of these types of studies.

They write:

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. We realize organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work. To provide time for these discussions, 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.

It’s not the first time scientists involved in controversial work have voluntarily agreed to pause while we as a society contemplate the implications of their findings. In 1972-73, when researchers first succeeded in inserting genes from one species into the genome of another, worries over the specter of genetic monsters and mutant creatures prompted leading scientists in the field to suspend their work while government, scientific and ethics groups figured out how the science should proceed. Following the voluntary research stoppage, the National Institutes of Health convened a committee to advise the government on how to regulate research in the field responsibly, without impinging on the forward momentum represented by the science. The researchers met themselves, at the Asilomar Conference in 1975, to provide their own proposals for how the work should continue. Today, such recombinant DNA studies are the foundation of experiments in infectious disease and cancer.

Science is also publishing this week a series of papers debating the merits of making public the H5N1 data. The reports include a defense of full publication by Fouchier and by Daniel Perez, a veterinary scientist at University of Maryland. The editors of Science also include an argument against full disclosure, written by Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and biosecurity expert at the University of Minnesota, and Dr. Donald Henderson, an infectious disease pioneer who led the World Health Organization’s effort to eradicate smallpox. They argue that:

[M]aking every effort to ensure that this information does not easily fall into the hands of those who might use it for nefarious purposes or that a biosafety accident resulting in an unintended release does not occur should be our first and highest priority. We can’t unring a bell; should a highly transmissible and virulent H5N1 influenza virus that is of human making cause a catastrophic pandemic, whether as the result of intentional or unintentional release, the world will hold life sciences accountable for what it did or did not do to minimize that risk.

In proposing the temporary moratorium, Fouchier, Kawaoke and their colleagues say “more research is needed to determine how influenza viruses in nature become human pandemic threats, so that they can be contained before they acquire the ability to transmit from human to human, or that appropriate countermeasures can be deployed if adaptation to humans occurs.”

Let’s hope that 60 days is enough to determine how to allow these types of studies to continue.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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