BETHESDA, Md. -- A prominent avian influenza researcher and a leading biosecurity expert wrangled on Monday over whether to lift a global moratorium on studies that aim to render the H5N1 virus more communicable or virulent.
Existing laws and regulations “have been shown to work,” he said. “Some incremental refining may be required, but whole new layers of rules and regulations are not needed.”
Concerned that the full findings from the studies could enable bad actors to assemble an enhanced virus for an act of bioterrorism, a federal panel of biodefense experts last year recommended avoiding the publication of certain data from the Dutch and U.S. projects. The National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity later reversed its decision after the scientists submitted additional data.
The freeze on corresponding research was implemented in January and has lasted beyond its anticipated 60-day period. A number of flu specialists want to see the curb lifted.
Fouchier made his argument during a morning panel discussion. Thomas Inglesby, who heads the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, offered a strikingly different take during the same talk.
"It’s one thing to say that physical security of [H5N1] strains can be guaranteed" in federally backed laboratory studies, "but how can any scientist say that publication of the work won’t lead to replication with intend to do harm?" Inglesby asked.
"Even if we have a perfect knowledge of malevolent actors in 2012, we don’t know what the world will look like in years ahead. Published information will be available forever," he said.
"We should continue the moratorium" and aggressively pursue the alternative research approaches advocated by Health and Human Services, Inglesby said.
Speaking later to Global Security Newswire, he said the pause should remain in place until there is "broader consensus in the scientific community on the benefits and the risks, which I don't think have been articulated adequately by either side."