January 21, 2012

Scientists Announce 60-Day "Pause" on New H5N1 Influenza Research

A new development has emerged in the ongoing controversy over the creation of a new H5N1 influenza virus which appears to have the pandemic potential long feared by public health officials. The new virus, created by Ron Fourchier and others, has the attributes of being highly infectious in humans and high mortality rate. According to the investigators, only a few mutations from a normal virus were required for the virus to adopt the new phenotypes, meaning that such a pandemic-level virus might emerge naturally much sooner than was previously thought. The debate over the publication of this work has gone on for weeks, as the National Advisory Board on Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended to both Science and Nature that they withhold publication of key details of the work if they were to publish the papers that describe the research. So far, both journals are reviewing the submitted publications, but have not decided how or whether to publish them. Nature has recently published a series of expert commentaries that consider how security and disclosure can coexist with respect to this kind of pathogen research. Lost in some of the early debates over publication was the fact that the new virus is now a scientific reality, and issues of physical containment and security are important in order to ensure that the existing stocks remain sequestered in laboratories.  Now, Fourchier and other virologists have announced a 60-day "pause" on any further work on these highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza viruses: "We realize that organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work." So we are returning to a primary and threshold question – should these viruses have been created and should similar work be encouraged (i.e., funded) in the future?  What international mechanisms can be put in place for proactive decision-making regarding dual use bioterrorism-related research? The World Health Organization has recently indicated that it will also be involved in these questions going forward. In the quest to understand pathogens, novel and dangerous strains may be created and are points of vulnerability, even if the underlying scientific data is never published. That’s what this episode has revealed, and the stakeholders in this debate go well beyond granting agencies and peer reviewers.

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