Research on avian influenza virus to resume

Scientists had suspended research a year ago following public safety concerns over laboratory-modified H5N1 viruses

By Jyotsna Singh
Published: Thursday 24 January 2013

The global scientific community studying avian influenza virus has announced resumption of research on H5N1 virus transmission in countries in which governments and institutions have given approval and where appropriate biosafety and biosecurity conditions have been met. The announcement has been published jointly in the journals Nature and Science.

In January last year, the scientists had announced suspension of research amid concerns regarding safety and threat to public health arising from the laboratory research being conducted by them. In January 2012, two independent studies conducted in two influenza laboratories at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Erasmus MC in Rotterdam in the Netherlands were published in Nature and Science. The studies showed changes that could be introduced to the H5N1 influenza virus to make it transmissible between ferrets via respiratory droplets. This virus was more transmissible in mammals.

It generated intense debate in the media on the benefits and potential harm of this type of research. There was fear that the ferret-transmissible virus might escape the laboratory and pose public health risks. The scientists, led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC, Adolfo García-Sastre of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of University of Tokyo and University of Wisconsin-Madison, decided to put a pause on all research in the field for 60 days to give time for discussions and address safety concerns to governments across the world. The period of 60 days was extended time and again till the latest announcement.

The announcement, released on Wednesday, reads thus: "During the past year, the benefits of this important research have been explained clearly in publications and meetings. Measures to mitigate the possible risks of the work have been detailed." In addition, the World Health Organization has released recommendations on laboratory biosafety for those conducting this research. Authorities in several countries have reviewed the biosafety, biosecurity and funding conditions under which further research would be conducted on the laboratory-modified H5N1 viruses.

Acknowledging these developments, the announcement signed by the three scientists on behalf of 40 scientists, said that researchers who have approval from their governments and institutions to conduct research in H5N1 virus-transmission safely, under appropriate biosafety and biosecurity conditions, should resume their work. However, countries where no decision has been reached on the conditions for H5N1 virus transmission research yet, scientists have been asked to not restart the work. They expressed hope that requisite approvals from other countries will come soon.

The signatories of today's letter have said that this research, like any other research on infectious agents, is not without risks. "However, because the risk exists in nature that an H5N1 virus capable of transmission in mammals may emerge, the benefits of this work outweigh the risks," read the statement.

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