Scientists behind Armageddon flu virus suspend research because it ‘could put the world at risk of a catastrophic pandemic’
Suspension: Ron Fouchier is part of a team of scientists who have ended their controversial studies on avian flu
Researchers studying a potentially deadlier airborne version of bird flu have suspended their studies because they fear the mutant virus they have created could be used as a devastating form of bioterrorism or accidentally escape from the lab.
In a letter published Friday in the journals Nature and Science, 39 scientists defended the research as crucial to public health efforts.
But they are bowing to the fear that has been widespread since the media discussed the studies and their possible fallout in December.
Fears have been expressed that the modified viruses could escape from labs – much like the chilling storyline of the 1971 sci-fi film The Andromeda Strain – or possibly be used to create a bioterrorist weapon.
Among the scientists who signed the letter were the leaders of the two teams that led the research, at Erasmus Medical College in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as flu experts at institutions ranging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the University of Hong Kong.
For the full letter, see below or click HERE.
Fears: Fears that bird flu could escape labs and cause a pandemic or be used in bioterrorism have led to a halt to research
The decision to suspend the research for 60 days “was totally voluntary”, Erasmus virologist Ron Fouchier told Reuters.
The pause in theirs is intended to allow global health agencies and governments to weigh the benefits of the research and agree on ways to minimize its risks.
“It’s the right thing to do, given the controversies in the United States,” Fouchier said.
Terror: If it escapes, the mutant virus created by scientists could cause a global catastrophe
In December, the US National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosafety had asked Science and Nature to censor details of research from the Erasmus and Wisconsin teams that had been submitted for publication.
Biosecurity experts fear that a form of the virus transmitted by airborne droplets – which the Erasmus and Wisconsin teams created independently – could trigger a pandemic worse than the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19 which killed up to 40 million people.
“There is obviously controversy here about the right balance between risk and benefit,” said virologist Daniel Perez of the University of Maryland, who signed the letter supporting the moratorium.
“I strongly believe that this research must continue, but that doesn’t mean you can’t request a time out.”
The full open letter
Below is the full open letter from Ron AM Fouchier, Adolfo García-Sastre, Yoshihiro Kawaoka and 36 co-authors published Friday in the journals Nature and Science.
“The continued threat of an influenza pandemic represents one of the greatest public health challenges. Influenza pandemics are known to be caused by viruses that evolve from animal reservoirs, such as birds and pigs, and can acquire genetic changes that increase their ability to transmit to humans. Pandemic preparedness plans have been implemented around the world to mitigate the impact of influenza pandemics.
A major obstacle to preventing influenza pandemics is that little is known about what makes an influenza virus transmissible to humans. Therefore, the potential pandemic risk associated with the many different animal influenza viruses cannot be assessed with certainty.
Recent breakthroughs in research have identified specific determinants of H5N1 influenza virus transmission in ferrets. Responsible research into influenza virus transmission using different animal models is being conducted by several laboratories around the world using the highest international standards of biosafety and biosafety practices that effectively prevent the release of laboratory transmissible viruses. These standards are regulated and closely monitored by the competent authorities. This statement is made by the principal researchers of these laboratories.
In two independent studies conducted at two state-of-the-art influenza laboratories at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, researchers demonstrated that viruses possessing a hemagglutinin (HA) protein from the viruses of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza can become transmissible in ferrets.
This is essential information that advances our understanding of influenza transmission. However, further research is needed to determine how influenza viruses in the wild become human pandemic threats, so that they can be contained before they gain the ability to transmit from human to human. or so that appropriate countermeasures can be deployed in the event of human adaptation.
Despite the positive public health benefits these studies sought to provide, the perceived concern that ferret-transmissible H5 HA viruses could escape from laboratories generated intense public debate in the media about the potential benefits and harms of this Type of research. We would like to assure the public that these experiments were conducted with appropriate regulatory oversight in secure containment facilities by highly trained and responsible personnel to minimize any risk of accidental release. It cannot be tested whether ferret-adapted influenza viruses have the ability to be transmitted from human to human.
We recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community must clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the steps taken to minimize its possible risks. We propose to do this in an international forum where the scientific community will come together to discuss and debate these issues. We realize that organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions to the opportunities and challenges that arise from work.
In order to allow time for these discussions, we have agreed to a voluntary 60-day pause on any research involving highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals. In addition, no experiments with live H5N1 or H5 HA reassortant viruses already transmissible to ferrets will be conducted during this period. We will continue to assess the transmissibility of H5N1 influenza viruses that emerge in nature and pose an ongoing threat to human health.