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Bird flu researcher: H5N1 work is 'urgent'

January 26, 2012|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Workers in Hong Kong fight the bird flu, 2008. A U.S. government advisory board asked bird flu researchers to withhold sensitive information about their research. One scientist involved argues that continuing the work is "urgent."
Workers in Hong Kong fight the bird flu, 2008. A U.S. government advisory… (AP Photo/Kin Cheung )

Another researcher whose work on the H5N1 avian flu has been delayed from publication because of the recommendations of a U.S. government advisory board, and who agreed to a 60-day moratorium on further work, has written that studies of the potentially dangerous virus -- including work that creates strains that might infect and sicken humans -- must go on.

Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Tokyo and the University of Wisconsin-Madison's comment article, published  Wednesday in the journal Nature, also revealed that the strain of H5N1 engineered in his laboratory and transmitted between ferrets (lab animals that respond to flu much as humans do) did not kill the infected animals and responded to current vaccines and antiviral compounds.

Another team, based in the Netherlands and led by Erasmus Medical Center researcher Ron Fouchier, created a mutant H5N1 virus that killed the ferrets who contracted it -- contributing to concerns that scientific research seeking to understand how flu becomes transmissible in mammals might produce a strain that could kill millions around the world if it escaped the lab and spread among people.  Biosecurity experts worried also that publishing the details of how the teams created their mutant flus would allow terrorists or others to weaponize the bird flu.

But Kawaoka argued in Nature that any risks of "misuse and accidental release" do not outweigh the work's benefits.

"I counter that H5N1 viruses circulating in nature already pose a threat, because influenza viruses mutate constantly and can cause pandemics with great losses of life," he wrote.  "Because H5N1 mutations that confer transmissibility in mammals may emerge in nature, I believe that it would be irresponsible not to study the underlying mechanisms."

Kawaoka also said that redacting his work would not keep others from also creating mutant H5N1, possibly for misuse, and that the mechanism being discussed by U.S. officials to control dissemination of future research into avian flu transmissibility would prove "unwieldy."

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