Health workers slaughter all the chickens at a Hong Kong poultry market… (Kin Cheung, Associated…)
In an almost unheard-of move, scientists who study the deadly H5N1 bird flu announced a 60-day voluntary moratorium on studying the virus to allow time "to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks."
The statement, released Friday by the journals Science and Nature, comes soon after federal officials had asked the journals and two research teams to withhold details of experiments that showed the virus can be coaxed to a form that passes readily through the air from mammal to mammal.
The request has rekindled a debate among scientists and in the media about how transparently to share delicate information that could help researchers develop ways to prevent and contain a disease threat but could also fall into the wrong hands.
Some have questioned whether experiments with such potentially risky results should be conducted at all.
Since the H5N1 bird flu broke onto the international scene in the mid-1990s, only about 600 identified cases of human infection, mostly among people who had handled poultry, have been recorded. About 60% of those victims died, however, making this an especially lethal type of flu.
Some scientists had feared it was only a matter of time before the virus mutated to pass easily among humans and have been working in high-security labs to prove this was possible — and to learn what key changes would signal the emergence of a monster.
Virologist Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands created a virus that could spread, airborne, between ferrets, with just a few genetic changes. Ferrets react to the flu virus much as humans do.
"We knew if we were successful, we would be creating a potentially dangerous virus," said Fouchier, lead author of the letter declaring the moratorium, which was signed by more than three dozen scientists.
But he said he believed the science was appropriate and the results should be published in full.
"We think, with these viruses, we are in a better position to prevent a pandemic from happening, and if we cannot prevent a pandemic, then to develop available vaccines," he said. "The work is too complicated for any bioterrorists to do in a garage — and for rogue countries, they would have experts. They don't need our manuscript."
The findings from Fouchier's lab and another at the University of Wisconsin set off alarms for the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which made the recommendation in December that details of the experiments be redacted from publications.
The journals and study authors have agreed to do this if a system is put in place for research information to be shared with scientists and public health workers who need it.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a member of the biosecurity advisory board, said that even though the science was useful, the virus could potentially escape lab containment by accident.
"You have to look at the risk-benefit ratio," Osterholm said.
Fouchier and coauthors wrote in the letter that they recognized the need to clearly explain the benefits of their research to a worried public. They called for an international forum where the scientific community could discuss the oversight of such high-security experiments and the potential risks as well as the benefits.
Osterholm said he doubted that two months would be long enough to come to a clear consensus.
"This is a very positive step forward in trying to have a very thoughtful and global discussion on this issue," he said. But, he added, "It's still quite optimistic to think that this all can be resolved in 60 days."