Science: Voluntary Pause on Avian Flu Transmission Research Should End in Some Countries

In a statement jointly published in Science and Nature this week, 40 influenza virus researchers announced that the voluntary pause on certain types of H5N1 avian influenza research should end in countries where the aims of this moratorium have been met and authorities have reached decisions about how best to conduct such work safely.

In 2012, two research teams published findings in Science and Nature about changes that could be introduced to the H5N1 influenza virus to make it transmissible between ferrets via respiratory droplets. The work could assist efforts to develop global influenza biosurveillance as well as drugs and vaccines to protect against this threat.

The findings underscored the risk that a similarly transmissible virus might evolve naturally and cause a human pandemic. Concerns also emerged about the safety of such research, including the possibility that it could be used for harmful purposes.

In January of last year, influenza researchers from around the world announced a voluntary pause on any research involving H5N1 influenza viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals. The purpose was to provide time to explain the public health benefits of this work, to describe the measures in place to minimize possible risks, and to enable organizations and governments around the world to review their policies regarding these experiments.

In the new letter, the original signatories of the voluntary moratorium now explain that the moratorium’s aims have been met in some countries and are close to being met in others. H5N1 viruses continue to evolve in nature, and H5N1 virus transmission studies are essential for pandemic preparedness. Researchers who have approval from their governments and institutions to conduct this research under appropriate biosafety and biosecurity conditions, the authors write, have a public health responsibility to resume this important work.

“The greater risk is not doing research that could help us be better equipped to deal with a pandemic. We want the world to be better prepared than we currently are,” said Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison during a 23 January teleconference. Kawaoka is the lead author of the 2012 Nature paper on H5N1 transmission, and has signed the new joint statement.

“The moratorium was put in place to provide some time for discussion about the risks and benefits of this research,” said Richard Webby of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, who is also one of the letter’s signers.

“The need for this voluntary moratorium has really passed,” he said, “and certainly those researchers in countries who have discussed this and have come up with methods for oversight of this research should be able to continue.”

The authors of the letter caution, however, that scientists should not restart their work in countries where no decision has yet been reached on the conditions for this research, including the United States and U.S.-funded research conducted in other countries.

Further, “scientists should never conduct this type of research without the appropriate facilities, oversight and all necessary approvals,” they write.

Links

Read the letter, “Transmission Studies Resume for Avian Flu,” by Ron Fouchier and colleagues.

Listen to a 23 January teleconference about the H5N1 letter.

Read past Science research, commentary, and news articles on H5N1 avian influenza transmission research.