After a yearlong halt based on safety concerns, research will resume on forms of the H5N1 bird-flu virus that scientists made easily transmissible within some mammals, and could potentially be a threat to humans.
Researchers should restart their projects in countries where governments have approved appropriate biosecurity measures, according to a letter signed by 40 researchers and published by the journals Science and Nature. This doesn’t currently include the U.S., the scientists wrote.
In January 2012, researchers worldwide issued a moratorium on testing H5N1, a strain of bird flu virus that can infect people after contact with diseased fowl. During the past year, scientists have established rules designed to make the studies less risky, allowing them to resume, said Ron Fouchier, a researcher at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands.
“All of the conditions for which the moratorium has been installed have been met, except in the USA,” Fouchier said yesterday in a conference call with reporters. “In those countries where the research can be done safely, the research should restart.”
Because of the risk that mutations of the bird-flu virus could make it easier for mammals to spread the infection, research is needed to test the effectiveness of vaccines and anti-viral medications against an airborne H5N1, Fouchier said.
In May, research led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and published by Nature, showed how H5N1 would become easily transmissible by mixing with the H1N1 swine flu virus that sparked the 2009 pandemic. In June, Science published studies by Fouchier and colleagues showing that five genetic tweaks made the virus airborne among ferrets, the mammals whose response to the flu is most like that of humans.
Publication of both studies were delayed after scientists were asked to censor their work to prevent it from being used by bioterrorists.
At a meeting of the World Health Organization in February, experts including Kawaoka, Fouchier and Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, agreed that the full findings should be published to help scientists design vaccines and drugs, and to help for pandemic preparations.
“We knew this was coming at some point,” said Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman, in an interview. “The fact that they had this self-imposed moratorium for almost a year when it was only supposed to be six months gave everyone a chance to sit back and look at issues, breathe a bit and understand what we need to do going forward.”
The U.S. is in the process of finalizing criteria to determine what bird flu projects it will fund, said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, based in Bethesda, Maryland.
That review, currently being done by the Department of Health and Human Services, may be complete in several weeks, Fauci said. Once those criteria are established, the NIH will begin reviewing research requests on a case-by-case basis and let those that meet the safety framework to proceed, he said.
Under the U.S. guidelines, researchers will only be allowed to conduct experiments that could occur naturally, not “some crazy Frankenstein type of experiment,” Fauci said.
The research will also have to have a benefit to public health that out weights the risk and be done in the least risky way possible, he said.
“Even though we feel a complete moratorium is over, whether or not you can specifically do an experiment with NIH or CDC money will depend on whether you fulfill the criteria,” he said in a telephone interview.
The biggest lesson from the moratorium was learning how to better communicate the benefits of research on H5N1, Richard Webby, a virologist at St. Jude’s Research Hospital who also signed the letter, said during the call.
Scientists have been monitoring for pandemic-inducing changes in H5N1 since the strain was recovered from a farmed goose in China’s southern province of Guangdong in 1996. The virus has since spread across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa, devastating poultry flocks and causing sporadic infections in people, though it doesn’t spread well in humans.
More than 600 people have been infected with bird flu, and almost 60 percent have died, according to the Geneva-based WHO.
Appropriate security measures include enhanced biosafety level 3 laboratories that work on infectious diseases that can cause serious sickness or death. In some countries, such as Canada, a higher level of safety may be required.
“We are certainly not restarting today,” Fouchier said. “It takes time to shut down research and it takes time to start it back up.”