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Scientist Calls for Lifting Bird Flu Research Restrictions

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Indian health specialists in January remove birds from a poultry farm where the avian influenza virus was found. The head of one controversial bird flu research project on Monday called for lifting the global freeze on such scientific activities (AP Photo/Sushanta Das). Indian health specialists in January remove birds from a poultry farm where the avian influenza virus was found. The head of one controversial bird flu research project on Monday called for lifting the global freeze on such scientific activities (AP Photo/Sushanta Das).

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.

The disagreement emerged near the start of a two-day international meeting of experts convened at the headquarters of the National Institutes of Health. A key focus of the gathering is to examine a draft policy developed by the Health and Human Services Department for reviewing federal grant requests pertaining to sensitive avian influenza research.
 
The department has put forward comparative genomics, predictive modeling and production of weakened H5N1 strains as possible alternatives to so-called "gain-of-function" avian flu studies, said virologist Ron Fouchier, who led one of two controversial studies that genetically modified the H5N1 virus to be more transmissible between ferrets.
 
Such methods of inquiry provide only “partial, suggestive and correlative” answers to research questions, Fouchier said.

Gain-of-function research aims to gain a better understanding of changes that could occur to the virus in nature. H5N1 has so far been relatively slow to spread in humans, but the virus has killed more than half of those infected, and experts have expressed wide concern that a natural mutation to the agent could result in a lethal human pandemic.
 
“It is undesirable and perhaps even irresponsible to maintain a ban on this form of research," argued Fouchier, of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. He argued that knowledge from studies like his work and a similar project at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) could yield useful knowledge in detecting the emergence of more dangerous bird flu strains in nature.

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."

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