As work on lethal bird flu research resumes, debate continues

Last week, an international group of scientists announced their intention to resume research on the potentially deadly H5N1 bird flu virus after a year’s hiatus, even as debate over the safety of the research continued.

Researchers from the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and the University of Wisconsin-Madison created new strains of bird flu to test their ability to spread in ferrets, hoping they could glean clues as to how the disease might spread in humans. They agreed to a self-imposed research moratorium in January 2012 after wide concerns arose about safety and terrorism. On January 23, 2013, the Rotterdam and Wisconsin scientists declared an end to the moratorium. They noted that, over the past year, the World Health Organization and several countries have issued safety guidelines for bird flu researchers—and argued that the benefits of conducting the research outweigh the risks. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health is still debating the issue and plans to issue guidelines about such research soon.

In the wake of the scientists’ announcement, a January 26, 2013 New York Times editorial emphasized the need for caution. A January 23, 2013 Nature editorial urged continued debate on the matter, noting that there has still been no “irreproachable, independent risk-benefit analysis of such research.”

At Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), two infectious disease experts—Marc Lipsitch, Professor of Epidemiology and Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, and Barry Bloom, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and Joan L. and Julius H. Jacobson Professor of Public Health—argued in an October 9, 2012 article in mBio that “any activity that creates even a small risk of releasing such viruses deserves exceptional scrutiny.” They called for “explicit risk-benefit assessments,” stronger biosafety practices and enforcement, and agreement within and between governments on criteria for allowing such research. “A highly transmissible, highly virulent virus like the modified H5N1 strains that have been created has the potential to infect billions and potentially kill a large fraction of those,” they wrote.

Watch video interview with Lipsitch discussing the importance of strict precautions regarding bird flu research

Watch webcast of February 2012 panel discussion on bird flu research featuring Lipsitch and Bloom

Read the Nature editorial

Read the New York Times editorial