Science and Nature jointly published a letter on Friday (January 20) declaring a voluntary 2-month suspension of research into transmission of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza. The letter, signed by 39 influenza researchers around the world, acknowledges that before research continues, there should be informed, global discussions regarding its regulation and publication.
The move came after the news that H5N1, which so far has not evolved transmissibility between humans, had been transformed in lab experiments into a virus that is aerosolized and easily transmitted between ferrets, the animal model that best mimics human influenza infection. Last month (December 20), the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended that details of the mutations which evolved this new transmissibility be redacted before publication, sparking a heated debate among the scientific community regarding how to share the results of such potentially dangerous research, and whether or not to do it in the first place.
The call for bird flu scientists to cease dangerous research activities for 60 days is similarly met with mixed reactions. Some welcome the opportunity to explore proper precautions, but others consider it an empty gesture, arguing that 2 months is too short to bring consensus on how avian influenza research should proceed.
“It’s a welcome statement right now, although it will be a challenge to come up with a global plan in 60 days,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a member of the NSABB panel that advised against full publication of the results.
“It’s a useful gesture,” agreed John Steinbruner, director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, but 2 months is not enough time, even if the pause “implicitly acknowledges a problem with the research.”
But whether those researchers who signed the letter intend to begin drawing up a global plan to re-imagine how H5N1 research is accomplished is unclear. The letter—co-authored by researchers of the two recent studies, which have been submitted to Science and Nature—describes the “need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks.” The goal of the 60-day moratorium, the letter says, is to “provide time for these discussions” regarding the “best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work.”
Daniel Perez, a virologist at the University of Maryland and one of the letter’s co-signers, feels that the pause should be a “time out, when we discuss what to do.” Perez believes that the benefits of the research, which he hopes can aid developing countries in pandemic preparedness, outweigh the risks, and that the suspension in research should be used to “put out the message that [the research] is useful.”
Some observers hoping for more action are not impressed with these sentiments. Richard Ebright, a chemistry professor and bioweapons expert at Rutgers University, sees the letter as a “PR gesture,” with 2 months being insufficient time to address the biosafety and security of the influenza virus.
Among the changes needed, “we should have in place a system of prior review,” Ebright said, such as a group of disinterested parties tasked with weighing the risk of such studies. He also calls for the new highly transmissible avian influenza to be placed in the Tier 1 risk group of select agents, so that the US government would regulate which labs handled and researched it. If influenza became a Tier 1 agent, it would join Ebola, anthrax, and the plague bacteria Yersinia pestis. Furthermore, to help prevent accidental release, many are arguing that H5N1 research should be restricted to Biosafety Level-4 (BSL4) labs, which require researchers to wear positive pressure suits, and add extra decontamination steps, like UV irradiation and showering before exiting. (The two recent H5N1 transmission studies under debate were both conducted in BSL3 or BSL3+ labs, in accordance with the current edition of the NIH’s Biosafety in Microbiology and Biomedical Laboratories.)
While researchers applaud the effort to initiate such discussions, decisions regarding the regulation of H5N1 research are unlikely to conclude in the 60 day window outlined in the letter. For starters, researchers and regulators must first decide who to include in such discussions. While Laura Kahn of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security thinks that biosecurity experts should be required participants, others envision scientific experts convening to weigh the risks. Lynn Klotz, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, DC, would like to see a global group of independent virologists and microbiologists deciding which experiments need doing at all.
Steinbruner argues for keeping “professional regulators” out of the picture for now in order to come to a conclusion more quickly. “Scientists must take the initiative to find an arrangement [of regulations] they can live with” before disaster strikes, he said. Though the name may not inspire the same nightmares as Ebola or anthrax, influenza may be the perfect agent for a pandemic, with H5N1 showing greater than 50 percent mortality in the five hundred people who have contracted the virus directly from infected poultry—well above the 2.5 percent mortality rate of the 1918 flu, which killed over 50 million people. “There’s nothing else in its league,” Steinbruner said.