Flu Research Sparks Debate About Bioterrorism and Government Control

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By Stephen Spotswood

WASHINGTON — In an unprecedented move, a federal panel has asked scientists and science journals to curtail the publication of research into avian flu (H5N1). The request has led to heated discussions among the scientific community and to a temporary moratorium on some avian flu research.

The fear is that, if the full scope of the research were made widely available, it could be used to maliciously create a variant of avian influenza easily transmissible to humans.

Two research groups — one at the University of Wisconsin-Madison led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, PhD, and one at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam led by Ron Fouchier, PhD, whose work was funded by the National institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) — have shown the relative ease by which more dangerous strains of H5N1 can be generated.

Both research groups created strains of the virus that can spread among mammals — ferrets in both cases — through airborne transmission and, according to their research, with relatively few changes to the virus’s structure.

The result is a flu that remains as deadly as the less-transmissible H5N1 but that could spread as quickly as seasonal flu. The benefit of such research includes the creation of surveillance techniques to allow researchers to look for similar changes to H5N1 in the wild, diagnostics to search for the virus and the creation of a vaccine designed for such a virus.

However, the dangerous potential of the research remains.

The research came to the attention of HHS in December, when the articles were under review by scientific journals. Kawaoka’s work was sent to Nature and Fouchier’s was sent to Science. The work also was sent to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), an independent panel that advises HHS, for review.

Later that month, NSABB released a statement recommending that the authors of the flu studies voluntarily censor their work in its published form. Specifically, NSABB asked that the manuscripts not include the “methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who could seek to do harm.”

To head off potential public outcry over unsafe scientific research, the panel also recommended that language be added to the manuscripts to explain the goals and potential public-health benefits of the research and to detail the security measure that were taken by both research groups.

Dr. Taronna Maines, a microbiologist in the Influenza Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, conducts an experiment at a Biosafety Level 3-enhanced laboratory on H5N1 avian influenza. Photo courtesy of CDC.

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