Epidemic fears see bird flu doctors halt research
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Saturday 21 January 2012
Influenza experts have agreed to a two-month voluntary ban on research into a highly dangerous strain of bird-flu virus because of fears that it may escape from their laboratories to cause a global human epidemic.
In a joint letter to the journals Science and Nature, 39 researchers from around the world emphasise that their laboratories are safe and secure but they nevertheless acknowledge that there is grave public concern about the accidental or deliberate release of an "airborne" strain of H5N1 avian influenza which could be transmitted easily between people.
"We realise that organisations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work. To provide time for these discussions, we have agreed on a voluntary pause of 60 days on any research involving highly pathogenic influenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals," the letter states.
Last month, the US Government announced that it had asked Science and Nature to withhold key details of two studies carried out in the US and the Netherlands where scientists mutated the H5N1 bird-flu strain into a form that could be transmitted easily between laboratory ferrets – the standard animal model for human influenza.
American officials were concerned that the open publication of the genetic mutations leading to an airborne strain of bird flu, which has killed about 60 per cent of the 600 or so people it is known to have infected, could be used by terrorists or a rogue state to unleash a devastating bio-weapon.
There were also concerns expressed by other experts that the laboratories where this research is conducted might not be secure enough to withstand a concerted terrorist attack. Some scientists also questioned whether there could eventually be an accidental release if the new mutated strain were made widely available among the approved influenza laboratories of the World Health Organisation.
The letter is signed by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison who carried out the two independent studies leading to the mutated version of the H5N1 virus that can be passed between ferrets by airborne transmission.
"Despite the positive public health benefits these studies sought to provide, a perceived fear that the ferret-transmissible [bird flu] 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," the letter states.
"Whether the ferret-adapted influenza viruses have the ability to transmit from human to human cannot be tested. We recognise that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimise its possible risks," it says.
The researchers said they intend to organise an international forum to discuss and debate the issues.
New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain
By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen
New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning
Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy
- 1 Canadian actor punched in face after 'Islamophobia' experiment goes wrong in wake of Ottawa shooting
- 2 Topshop at centre of row over body image as 'shocking' skinny mannequin photo goes viral
- 3 Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson criticised for beer tweet
- 4 The bubble bursts for Sodastream
- 5 If you think Russell Brand’s new book is confused, you should read what his critics have to say about it
'Nasa Confirms Six Days of Darkness in December': No, they don't - it's a hoax
Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson criticised for beer tweet
The bubble bursts for Sodastream
Russian politician says Apple CEO Tim Cook should be 'banned' from country after coming out as gay
'Santa Claus' dead: John Moore starred in Coca Cola and Morrisons adverts
Pope Francis declares evolution and Big Bang theory are real and God is not 'a magician with a magic wand'
Huge surge in Ukip support after EU funding row, according to new poll
Ukip ‘exploiting grooming scandal’ to secure party’s first police chief
Nigel Farage: 'There’s nothing wrong with white people blacking up'
Maureen Lipman says 'she can't vote Labour while Ed Miliband is leader'
Muslims, immigration and teenage pregnancy: British people are ignorant about almost everything
£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...
£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...
£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...
£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...