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.
Revealed: Stunning new images show gold-plated, ultra-luxurious Riyadh metro station that Saudi king has ordered to be built
World news in pictures
Far-right French historian, 78-year-old Dominique Venner, commits suicide in Notre Dame in protest against gay marriage
Oklahoma tornado latest: Rescue effort nears an end after President Obama pledges support for 'as long as it takes' to rebuild the suburb of Moore
Video emerges of Pope Francis reportedly performing an exorcism
- 1 Gay couple beaten in park urge MPs to moderate language on gay marriage
- 2 Swedes set up 'ultimate Viking movie'
- 3 After woman sells virginity for $780,000, here are the results of our prostitution survey
- 4 China agrees to impose carbon targets by 2016
- 5 Far-right French historian, 78-year-old Dominique Venner, commits suicide in Notre Dame in protest against gay marriage
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.
Excellent Salary Package - £60K to £120K: Austen Lloyd: We have an exciting op...
£200 - £250 per day: Progressive Recruitment: Java Developer - Urgent Requirem...
£70000 - £95000 per annum + Bonus, flexible working hours, remote work: Progre...
£50000 - £56000 per annum + Benefits package, flexible working hours: Progress...