Advertisement

A Call to Stop H5N1 Research

Three dozen researchers have signed a letter promising to halt dangerous bird flu research for 2 months to initiate safety discussions.

By | January 23, 2012

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, KEITH EVANS

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.

 

Advertisement

Add a Comment

Avatar of: You

You

Processing...
Processing...

Sign In with your LabX Media Group Passport to leave a comment

Not a member? Register Now!

LabX Media Group Passport Logo

Comments

Avatar of: stahara

stahara

Posts: 9

January 23, 2012

The flu researchers should recall that there is a good, previous model for discussion and reflection. Re: 1975 Asilomar meeting for recombinant DNA. This meeting was convened by the principals in the field and was an excellent example of self-policing. The NIH Guidelines were based on these initial discussions and have arguably served both society and the scientific community well. 

Avatar of: Ed Rybicki

Ed Rybicki

Posts: 82

January 23, 2012

...because the moment anyone in the US actually starts to REGULATE work on H5N1, I can see that the Law of Unintended Consequences could shaft anyone outside of the US who wants anything to do with H5N1 isolates, including reagents, sequences, clones....  To point out that this might cripple research on the virus in the countries most at risk from outbreaks SHOULD be redundant.

I remember someone pointing out, around the time of the Asilomar guidelines being formulated, that if you went according to the letter, you could be stopped from having sex in the lab - or even going home for it.

Moral: the less regulation, and the more self-policing, the better.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 23, 2012

The flu researchers should recall that there is a good, previous model for discussion and reflection. Re: 1975 Asilomar meeting for recombinant DNA. This meeting was convened by the principals in the field and was an excellent example of self-policing. The NIH Guidelines were based on these initial discussions and have arguably served both society and the scientific community well. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 23, 2012

...because the moment anyone in the US actually starts to REGULATE work on H5N1, I can see that the Law of Unintended Consequences could shaft anyone outside of the US who wants anything to do with H5N1 isolates, including reagents, sequences, clones....  To point out that this might cripple research on the virus in the countries most at risk from outbreaks SHOULD be redundant.

I remember someone pointing out, around the time of the Asilomar guidelines being formulated, that if you went according to the letter, you could be stopped from having sex in the lab - or even going home for it.

Moral: the less regulation, and the more self-policing, the better.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 23, 2012

The flu researchers should recall that there is a good, previous model for discussion and reflection. Re: 1975 Asilomar meeting for recombinant DNA. This meeting was convened by the principals in the field and was an excellent example of self-policing. The NIH Guidelines were based on these initial discussions and have arguably served both society and the scientific community well. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 23, 2012

...because the moment anyone in the US actually starts to REGULATE work on H5N1, I can see that the Law of Unintended Consequences could shaft anyone outside of the US who wants anything to do with H5N1 isolates, including reagents, sequences, clones....  To point out that this might cripple research on the virus in the countries most at risk from outbreaks SHOULD be redundant.

I remember someone pointing out, around the time of the Asilomar guidelines being formulated, that if you went according to the letter, you could be stopped from having sex in the lab - or even going home for it.

Moral: the less regulation, and the more self-policing, the better.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 24, 2012

Bird flu researchers agree to 60 day halt.H5N1 Strain was reengineered
to
affect animals.How this is done.My thoughts.By knowing animal cell
membrane ,
what it allows to attach,by knowing the surface protein,we
can reengineer the
H5N1 to produce that surface protein, in its lipid
coating. We may synthesise
that DNA which produce the attach protein,
and incorporate in bird H5N1 virus
DNA, using host cells for DNA
attachment.I want your opinions, sirs.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 24, 2012

Why?? What effect would that have on wild-type H5N1?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 24, 2012

Avian influenza is a scam of the 21st century. The scam originated in the minds of virologists and physicians care, from ignorance of the differences between colds and flu (formerly known as the plague). If the cold is due to inflammation, which is the result of a breach of thermoregulation. That flu (plague) is the result of contamination of Vireo cholera. A virus is translated from the Latin, meaning mucus. Mucus is a product of isolation cells, but the mucus is not a cage. Mucus is an amorphous (shapeless) state of matter.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 24, 2012

@Viktor: go away.
@Namby: why?? What would that do to all the wild-type H5N1? Precious little.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 24, 2012

Bird flu researchers agree to 60 day halt.H5N1 Strain was reengineered
to
affect animals.How this is done.My thoughts.By knowing animal cell
membrane ,
what it allows to attach,by knowing the surface protein,we
can reengineer the
H5N1 to produce that surface protein, in its lipid
coating. We may synthesise
that DNA which produce the attach protein,
and incorporate in bird H5N1 virus
DNA, using host cells for DNA
attachment.I want your opinions, sirs.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 24, 2012

Why?? What effect would that have on wild-type H5N1?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 24, 2012

Avian influenza is a scam of the 21st century. The scam originated in the minds of virologists and physicians care, from ignorance of the differences between colds and flu (formerly known as the plague). If the cold is due to inflammation, which is the result of a breach of thermoregulation. That flu (plague) is the result of contamination of Vireo cholera. A virus is translated from the Latin, meaning mucus. Mucus is a product of isolation cells, but the mucus is not a cage. Mucus is an amorphous (shapeless) state of matter.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 24, 2012

@Viktor: go away.
@Namby: why?? What would that do to all the wild-type H5N1? Precious little.

Avatar of: Namby Ravi Reddiar

Namby Ravi Reddiar

Posts: 1457

January 24, 2012

Bird flu researchers agree to 60 day halt.H5N1 Strain was reengineered
to
affect animals.How this is done.My thoughts.By knowing animal cell
membrane ,
what it allows to attach,by knowing the surface protein,we
can reengineer the
H5N1 to produce that surface protein, in its lipid
coating. We may synthesise
that DNA which produce the attach protein,
and incorporate in bird H5N1 virus
DNA, using host cells for DNA
attachment.I want your opinions, sirs.

Avatar of: Ed Rybicki

Ed Rybicki

Posts: 82

January 24, 2012

Why?? What effect would that have on wild-type H5N1?

Avatar of: viktor belousov

viktor belousov

Posts: 12

January 24, 2012

Avian influenza is a scam of the 21st century. The scam originated in the minds of virologists and physicians care, from ignorance of the differences between colds and flu (formerly known as the plague). If the cold is due to inflammation, which is the result of a breach of thermoregulation. That flu (plague) is the result of contamination of Vireo cholera. A virus is translated from the Latin, meaning mucus. Mucus is a product of isolation cells, but the mucus is not a cage. Mucus is an amorphous (shapeless) state of matter.

Avatar of: Ed Rybicki

Ed Rybicki

Posts: 82

January 24, 2012

@Viktor: go away.
@Namby: why?? What would that do to all the wild-type H5N1? Precious little.

Avatar of: Barry Barclay

Barry Barclay

Posts: 1457

January 25, 2012

I applaud the moratorium on the publication of this research however short but nonetheless have a real fundamental philosophical problem with this issue. The lack of foresight demonstrated by the researchers involved here astonishes me. Did it never occur to them before they began isolating mutant strains of H5N1 that could be transmitted efficiently in a mammalian system that they would be generating a public health hazard in their laboratory freezers and a potential weapon protocol if they succeeded and published the results? Why on earth did they go down that road in the first place? What ethics committee permitted such a thing?

Avatar of: viktor belousov

viktor belousov

Posts: 12

January 25, 2012

I would like to know more, the virologists and Ed Rybicki, as they managed to find a monovalent nitrogen chemical compound (H5N1) ?.... Perhaps there are viruses and such (H5 N 0, 5), (H5 N 0, 2), which will open and virologists headed by the Ed Rybicki?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 25, 2012

I applaud the moratorium on the publication of this research however short but nonetheless have a real fundamental philosophical problem with this issue. The lack of foresight demonstrated by the researchers involved here astonishes me. Did it never occur to them before they began isolating mutant strains of H5N1 that could be transmitted efficiently in a mammalian system that they would be generating a public health hazard in their laboratory freezers and a potential weapon protocol if they succeeded and published the results? Why on earth did they go down that road in the first place? What ethics committee permitted such a thing?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 25, 2012

I would like to know more, the virologists and Ed Rybicki, as they managed to find a monovalent nitrogen chemical compound (H5N1) ?.... Perhaps there are viruses and such (H5 N 0, 5), (H5 N 0, 2), which will open and virologists headed by the Ed Rybicki?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 25, 2012

I applaud the moratorium on the publication of this research however short but nonetheless have a real fundamental philosophical problem with this issue. The lack of foresight demonstrated by the researchers involved here astonishes me. Did it never occur to them before they began isolating mutant strains of H5N1 that could be transmitted efficiently in a mammalian system that they would be generating a public health hazard in their laboratory freezers and a potential weapon protocol if they succeeded and published the results? Why on earth did they go down that road in the first place? What ethics committee permitted such a thing?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 25, 2012

I would like to know more, the virologists and Ed Rybicki, as they managed to find a monovalent nitrogen chemical compound (H5N1) ?.... Perhaps there are viruses and such (H5 N 0, 5), (H5 N 0, 2), which will open and virologists headed by the Ed Rybicki?

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
Hudson Robotics
Hudson Robotics
Advertisement
The Scientist
The Scientist