WIKIMEDIA, CDCAn international group of influenza researchers have ended a year-long break in research aiming to engineer new and potentially dangerous strains of the H5NI avian flu virus.
In a letter published this week (January 23) in both Science and Nature, 40 researchers insisted that “the aims of the voluntary moratorium have been met in some countries and are close to being met in others,” and added that researchers “have a public-health responsibility to resume this important work.”
The move comes almost exactly a year after the researchers agreed to stop the work in response to an intense debate over whether it was safe to publish two papers that demonstrated how to engineer the virus, which usually infects birds, so that it could pass between mammals through the air. Critics feared that accidental or deliberate release of the news viruses could start a deadly human pandemic, and some questioned the value of doing “gain-of-function work”—intended to increase transmissibility, host range, or virulence.
The papers were eventually published—in Science and Nature—but the controversy led to a moratorium designed to provide time for a more measured discussion on appropriate safety measures and the need for such research, which could help scientists understand the evolution of the virus in the wild and prepare for natural outbreaks. In December last year, at a 2-day international meeting hosted by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, the United States and other nations agreed new schemes to review proposals for H5N1 “gain-of-function” research. The rules are expected to come into force soon, allowing researchers in some countries to restart their experiments.
“[B]ecause the risk exists in nature that an H5N1 virus capable of transmission in mammals may emerge," the researchers wrote in the recent letter, "the benefits of this work outweigh the risks.”