Scientists Push to Resume Research On Virulent Man-Made Flu Virus

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Researchers who voluntarily stopped work on a potent strain of influenza they created in the lab are hoping to end the moratorium on their studies.

In January 2012, scientists agreed to halt their research on the dangerous H5N1 avian flu–or bird flu virus–that they had manipulated to become more easily transmissible from person to person. H5N1 became known as avian influenza because it thrives in fowl populations, including ducks and migrating geese, and while it caused severe illness in people, the virus was less adept at jumping between human hosts, and presumably, among other mammals as well. Since 1997, when the virus was identified in Hong Kong, about 600 people have been infected and nearly 60% have died.

But two groups of scientists, one led by Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and another led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at University of Wisconsin, independently managed to create strains of H5N1 in their labs that could pass between ferrets, marking the first time that a version of the avian flu could easily spread among mammals. The potential for a pandemic with H5N1, which, to date, may have a 50% mortality rate among those infected, was concerning enough to biosafety officials that the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) requested that scientific journals not publish the details of how the virulent strains of H5N1 were made. The papers, the officials feared, could serve as a how-to guide for human catastrophe if the results were used by bioterrorists.

(MORE: H5N1: Bird Flu Pandemic May Be Closer than Thought, Study Finds)

The move by the NSABB was unprecedented, and outraged many in the scientific community, who felt politics and policy were interfering with the pursuit of science. However, the researchers agreed to a voluntary pause on their research so they could better explain the public health benefits of their work, as well as provide leaders in both the scientific and political communities time to determine the best way to proceed with and manage research that could have such dual purposes.

In the meantime, the scientists were asked to revise the papers they had submitted to the journals Science and Nature by removing some of the details of their methods, and in March 2012, the NSABB okay‘d the papers for public viewing. The results were sobering: Fouchier’s paper, published in June in Science, found that after replicating four to five times in ferrets, the virus began to mutate and eventually became airborne when the infected ferrets sneezed, with the power to infect and flourish in another animal.

But the voluntary moratorium on studying the virus remained. Now, the researchers, as well as others who also work on avian influenza, want to continue their investigations. Both the journals Nature and Science published a letter from 40 influenza experts who argue that H5N1 research should continue. The authors say that in the past year, the benefits of their studies have been fully explained and the World Health Organization has released laboratory safety recommendations for biosafety and security to contain the potentially pandemic virus. Only scientists working in countries that have proper biosafety plans in place, however, should resume their studies.

The researchers write:

The controversy surrounding H5N1 virus transmission research has highlighted the need for a global approach to dealing with dual-use research of concern. Developing comprehensive solutions to resolve all the issues will take time. Meanwhile, H5N1 viruses continue to evolve in nature. Because H5N1 virus transmission studies are essential for pandemic preparedness and understanding the adaptation of influenza viruses to mammals, researchers who have approval from their governments and institutions to conduct this research safely, under appropriate biosafety and biosecurity conditions, have a public-health responsibility to resume this important work.

(MORE: Dangers of Man-Made Bird Flu Are Exaggerated, Its Creators Say)

“We want the world to be better prepared than we currently are when an H5N1 virus poses a pandemic,” Kawaoka said in a press conference. “We understand the risks associated with our research. We take every precaution to conduct H5N1 experiments safely. There can never be zero risk, but the risk can be minimized and managed. We have always followed the rules in the past and will comply with whatever additional guidelines and measures our governments deem are necessary.”

The researchers are adamant that the benefits of studying how H5N1 jumps from host to host, especially mammalian ones, outweigh the risks. Scientists whose work is funded by the U.S. government are not able to continue their studies until policy makers create proper guidelines and conditions for H5N1 research.

What are the researchers so eager to learn? At the top of their to-do lists are identifying the exact number and type of mutations required to make H5N1 more effective at airborne transmission, as well as determining whether the mutations could make other bird flu viruses infect human hosts more easily.

(MORE: Government Panel Defends Censorship of Bird Flu Virus Research)

Some of the researchers’ frustration stems from the fact that while other countries have developed guidelines, the U.S. has yet to announce how much longer they need to wait. “If the U.S. would have said at the NIH meeting in November last year it would take another three months, we would probably have waited, but we did not get that answer,” said Fouchier. “It might take another one, two, three years…Now, many countries can do [this] research and…the question is should all countries really wait for the U.S. and why?”

The experience highlights how scientific pursuits are no longer simply the isolated studies of esoteric questions, but important endeavors that could have huge implications on global public health. And the need to discuss the wide reach of these studies, on government, policy and ethics, is becoming more critical. But, said Fouchier, those debates shouldn’t hamper or restrain science. “That global discussion is now ongoing. It’s not going end within a very short period and, therefore, this moratorium should stop because this discussion is going to take a few more years I believe,” he said. That’s time that we can’t afford to lose in the fight against microbes that are constantly changing and working to evade our best defenses.

6 comments
SueHyunLee
SueHyunLee

As a grad student studying biomedical engineering, I do see the need for this kind of potentially life-threatening research (though I have to wonder; why can't they compare existing viruses that infect human effectively vs ones that don't to figure out what mutations/gees it takes for a virus to target human?) and also understand the fear from the public. Research must continue, in my opinion, however, just like how companies/the government don't freely post its trading secrets/dangerous information, the key findings should remain somewhat restricted which would mean no publication in journals (or sufficient removal of the key components), but then it loses the purpose/power of publishing...  

AlBertSoto
AlBertSoto

As if we do not have enough problems with natural viruses and bacteria, everytime man meddles with nature something usually goes wrong.

AnnieS
AnnieS

This makes me shudder.  Can't remember the names of a couple or three movies about vaccines being developed to  make a vaccine for, but, alas, the vaccine got out, mutated and spread rapidly through the world's population, especially in  areas where poverty is rampant.

Then you have the NWO (New World Order), the Illuminati, and govts mutating vaccines for behavioral and population control of people, etc..., along with Conspiracy Theories with Jesse Ventura, and google and bing have  very long lists of sites, many being bogus, ( one person's opinion with no research being done to give any scientific proof)

There is a lot of hype on vaccines that folks the age of 'baby-boomers' and younger, didn't know about since the age of vaccinating for Rubella, Pertussis and Diptheria are long gone, which, in my opinion is a big mistake, since they are now suggesting that parents of young children get the pertussis vaccine.  

In elementary school, we had the polio vaccine.  A drop of vaccine was put on a sugar cube given to us.  I think this was done a couple months apart for 3 doses.  We were tested for TB in school, had smallpox vaccine given too.  My mother was a Red Cross Nurse and went around to schools in the area.  The Red Cross medical services in the city and county was replaced with what is now the Public Health system.. Fluoride was added to city water, and county water,  but a good portion of the counties were rural and farm areas.  People had no public water. Folks dug wells, or had springs that their water for home use and watering the stock came from..  Much of our county here is still rural and farmland, and mountainous areas,though more ugly subdivisions are being built as farmland is sold, though there is only so much land a farmer can sell, set by the county commissioners

At the hospital, all of the employees were tested for TB, and had vaccines for Hepatitis (3 doses), flu and pneumonia vaccines,chest x-rays, and whatever it was for.  Back then, well in the 70s, all of our families were checked also. Sometimes a patient would come in with something nasty, and all the employees and patients were all tested for whatever, and treated, if necessary.  MERSA is one of the most important right now (which is 'man'made).

Well, this historical trip down memory lane might help some folks to understand better, the main purpose being, in that day and time, there was more Trust in each other, and people actually Cared for their families, friends and everybody else.  There was not as much Blatant Greed evidenced.  People had much more Trust for the government, though that trust was damaged considerably with the Viet Nam War.  in the 40s, 50s and 60s, you had WWII, the Korean War, and Viet Nam War.  So the mindset of the people and of the countries was different than it is now..

ShawnArscott
ShawnArscott like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Create the deadly virus - create the vaccine - big money - some may live - some may die - welcome to nazi BigPharma.

AngelNavarro
AngelNavarro

Just Great! New Profit Motive. Create a vaccine for the newly created virus. And Repeat!

JoshuaDaniel
JoshuaDaniel like.author.displayName 1 Like

They are making it possible for something like a zombie apocolypse to happen... This is where it starts.. the research of a simple flu virus