Halt will allow discussion of benefits and perceived fears of such work, and how it should proceed.
Flu researchers have agreed to self-impose a 60-day pause on work involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 that are transmissible in mammals. The halt, called by two independent research teams publishing work on the generation of avian H5N1 viruses that can be transmitted to ferrets, has been agreed by scientists around the world.
In studies to be published, Ron A. M Fouchier’s team at Erasmus MC in Rotterdam (the Netherlands) and Adolfo Carcia-Sastre and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison independently showed that live H5N1 viruses and viruses possessing a hemagglutinin (HA) protein from H5N1 viruses can become transmissible in ferrets. They had previously agreed to omit from their publications experimental details that would allow others to replicate the generation of ferret-transmissible H5N1.
In a statement released Friday afternoon in both Nature and Science, the teams stress that their studies do provide critical information that will help advance the scientific world’s understanding of how flu is transmitted. Moreover, they point out, influenza virus transmission studies in animal models are being carried out in laboratories globally under government-regulated and monitored international standards of biossafety and biosecurity. And whether the ferret-adapted viruses could even be transmitted between humans can’t be tested.
Nevertheless, they admit, “a perceived fear that the ferret-transmissible H5 HA 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.” As a result of this unease, the scientists are advocating an international forum in which the scientific community can discuss and debate issues surrounding the importance and safety of such research.
“We realize that organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work,” the scientists state. “To provide time for these discussions, we have agreed on a voluntary pause of 60 days on any research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals. In addition, no experiments with live H5N1 or H5 HA reassortant viruses already shown to be transmissible in ferrets will be conducted during this time.”