July 24, 2012
Top influenza researchers around the world published a statement back in January saying they would temporarily hold off on any work with contagious, lab-altered forms of a particularly worrisome form of bird flu.
The unusual voluntary moratorium was supposed to last only 60 days, but it's been more than six months. And scientists don't agree on what should happen next.
Some scientists and researchers say these mutant bird flu viruses could cause a devastating pandemic if they ever got out of the lab. Others argue that the work is vital to help public health officials get ready for the possible threat of a flu pandemic that might emerge naturally, as bird flu viruses mutate in the wild.
Flu researchers are going to New York next week for the annual conference of the government-funded Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS). Researchers who made the mutant viruses will be there, plus others who signed the voluntary moratorium.
But some flu experts say there are bigger questions here that go beyond what's done in any one country — and that they need to be addressed at an international level.
"The way that I see it is that all the discussions that are ongoing are not really hitting the nail on the head," says Ilaria Capua, an Italian flu researcher at the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie, Legnaro, who signed the moratorium.
In her view, if this kind of work continues to get funded and published in the U.S. and Europe, the technology for making mutant flu viruses will get easier and easier, and more and more labs will want to do it.
"And then we have 100, 200 labs around the world which contain in their freezers influenza viruses of high pathogenicity which are transmissible in humans," says Capua. "Is this what we want?"
She notes that this proliferation could increase the risk of a lab accident, especially if work starts getting done in less stable regions of the world where political turmoil or natural disasters could compromise security.
The World Health Organization is planning to have an open meeting next year that will address some of these issues. In the meantime, that agency has just released some guidelines for appropriate risk-control measures for research with these mutant bird flu viruses.
"Given the potential of these newly developed laboratory-modified H5N1 strains to start a pandemic," the guidance notes, "it is important that facilities that are NOT able to identify and appropriately control the risks associated with these agents REFRAIN from working with them."
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