The announcement last Friday of a 60-day moratorium on H5N1 research underscored the controversy swirling around this work.
The moratorium statement, coauthored by the lead pair of airborne H5N1 flu researchers and 37 other influenza researchers from around the world, also highlighted the degree to which these scientists stand behind the importance and safety of airborne H5N1 research.
The statement, published online on Jan. 20 in Science and in Nature, received bylined support from an international group of flu researchers from the United States, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Japan, China, Canada, Germany, and Italy, including staffers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.
They said that the airborne H5N1 avian flu research, which first became public knowledge a month ago, “is critical information that advances our understanding of influenza transmission. However, more research is needed to determine how influenza viruses in nature become human pandemic threats, so that they can be contained before they acquire the ability to transmit from human to human, or so that appropriate countermeasures can be deployed if adaptation to humans occurs.”
The authors acknowledged the “perceived fear” about possible escape of the ferret transmissible H5N1 that labs in Rotterdam and Madison, Wisc., created, and they reaffirmed that “these experiments have been conducted with appropriate regulatory oversight in secure containment facilities by highly trained and responsible personnel to minimize any risk of accidental release.”
Finally, the moratorium group explained what they hoped to achieve with their 60-day pause: “We recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks. We propose to do that in an international forum in which the scientific community comes together to discuss and debate these issues.”
An interview that also ran in Science on Friday with Ron Fouchier, the Rotterdam virologist who leads one of these H5N1 studies, quoted him as saying that an international forum will be organized in the next couple of weeks, and that he hopes it will include representatives from the World Health Organization and the U.S. government. In the interview with Martin Enserink, Fouchier said that the idea for the moratorium began with himself, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who independently also produced an air-transmissible H5N1 strain in ferrets, and Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, a flu researcher at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
Fouchier also drew the inevitable comparison between this moratorium and the one called by recombinant DNA researchers prior to their historic 1975 meeting at the Asilomar Conference Center in California.
What seems most notable about the moratorium statement is the number and diversity of the signatories, and their willingness to stand fully behind this work despite the criticisms leveled against it over the past month. The upcoming public forum is something to look forward to.
—Mitchel Zoler (on Twitter @mitchelzoler)