Bird flu scientists announce 60 day moratorium on controversial research

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
H5N1 virus, bird flu, bioterrorism, controversy, deadly virus

The authors of two studies on a genetically engineered strain of the H5N1 (bird flu) virus have signed a letter that notes they will pause their research for 60 days to allow an international scientific discussion about the controversy. Other flu researchers also signed the letter, which was published on January 20 in the peer-reviewed journals Science and Nature.

The genetically engineered strain can easily spread easily between ferrets. That mammal is an appropriate animal model because it responds to the influenza virus in a similar manner to that of a human. On December 20, the federal government made the extraordinary move to request that the scientist not reveal the details of their research. The government’s concern is that, although the research can benefit the public in regard to preventing deadly infections, it could result in bioterrorism if it fell into the wrong hands. "It wasn't an easy decision," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious diseases chief at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funded the original research. At present, the deadly H5N1 strains have been sequestered in high-security laboratories.

Virologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands are currently working on research papers that will be published in the journals Science and Nature. Their goal is to spread their research to their colleagues so that prevention and control of H5N1 can be enhanced. However, government biosecurity advisers have requested that the virologists limit the material to the general discoveries and withhold crucial details about the viruses that they have developed.


The letter stated that the researchers would work with the government to ensure that only those with valid scientific interests have access to key data. It noted, “Despite the positive public health benefits these studies sought to provide, a perceived fear that the ferret-transmissible … viruses may escape from the laboratories has generated intense public debate in the media on the benefits and potential harm of this type of research.” The researchers noted that while the experiments were conducted in a controlled and secured environment by trained personnel, “we recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks.”

According to Dr. Fauci, the efforts by NIH officials and scientific journal editors to arrive at a method to safeguard sensitive parts of the research have come to an impasse. He added that the planning covers “a bit of uncharted ground, and we don’t want to set any precedents that we’ll wish we hadn’t.” He noted that of particular concern was that international researchers felt left out of what had become a “U.S.-centric process.” He said that he was hopeful that the scientists and government agencies will meet in Geneva during the moratorium to brainstorm. He explained that the international meeting should clarify the issue regarding what researchers have a right to know vs. what the general public needs to know about the research.

Throughout the globe, H5N1 has caused outbreaks in wild birds and poultry. It only occasionally infects humans who have close contact with infected poultry, particularly in parts of Southeast Asia. Over the past decade, it has infected almost 600 individuals; 60% of those succumbed from the disease. Concern exists that it is possible for H5N1 to mutate into a form that can rapidly spread between individuals; thus, resulting in a pandemic.

Reference: Nature

See Also:
Bird flu fears heighten following death of Chinese man
H5N1 bird-flu virus: a bioterrorist risk