Top virology scientists temporarily halt research on highly transmissible avian flu

TOM INGRAM
The Manitoban (University of Manitoba)

WINNIPEG (CUP) — The leaders of several top virology labs have agreed to a 60-day halt on research involving new strains of avian influenza that are more transmissible in mammals. The agreement was spearheaded by Ron Fouchier, a Dutch virologist and the lead author of a controversial study on bird flu, currently in press at Science.

Fouchier’s work at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam created a new strain of H5N1 influenza, which allows for the airborne spread of the virus between ferrets. Ferrets catch the flu in a similar manner to humans, and are thought to be good models of flu infection in humans.

The United States National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), to which Fouchier sent his paper for review before publishing, advised that certain details be left out of the published article for security reasons.

After the story broke, Fouchier saw growing public unease about his research and began talking to other flu scientists. They came to the conclusion that some time was needed to allow governments and health organizations to think about the issues raised by the work. A statement was published on Jan. 20 in the journals Science and Nature announcing the pause, which affects work on “highly pathogenic” bird flu strains. Research on naturally occurring influenza will continue.

During this period, Fouchier hopes to organize a meeting with the U.S. government and the World Health Organization (WHO) in attendance. “People need to talk, and infectious diseases specialists need to take the microphone and explain why this research is important and how you can do it safely,” he said in an interview with Science.

Some are worried about the harsh response to research that could have major benefits to public health. “I have concerns that people understandably concerned about security may put restrictions on important research that might go a little bit too far,” said Anthony Fauci, from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Maryland.

Fouchier himself believes that the fears about his research are overblown. “Bioterrorists can’t make this virus, it’s too complex, you need a lot of expertise,” he said. “And rogue nations that do have the capacity to do this don’t need our information. So I don’t think they will benefit from this information at all.”

Meanwhile, the WHO worries that restrictions on publishing flu research will jeopardize a painstakingly negotiated international data-sharing agreement intended to “increase and expedite access to essential vaccines, antivirals and diagnostic kits, especially for outbreak areas.”

Critics of the safety of Fouchier’s research were unwavering. John Steinbruner, an international security expert at the University of Maryland, questioned the ability of governments to do anything meaningful within 60 days. Richard Ebright, a biologist from Rutgers University in New Jersey, called Fouchier’s statement “strictly symbolic.”

“The letter rejects, out of hand, the need for enhanced biosafety, biosecurity, and dual-use oversight, and, instead, maintains that all that is needed is an opportunity for researchers ‘to assure the public’ and ‘to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risk,’” said Ebright.

Thomas Inglesby, a biosecurity expert who criticized Fouchier’s research when it was first announced, compared bird flu to the Spanish flu, a disease that was widespread and deadly in 1918. “H5N1 avian influenza has sickened 571 people, killing 59 per cent of them,” he wrote. “To give some perspective, the fatality rate of the virus that caused the 1918 Great Pandemic was 2 per cent, and that pandemic killed on the order of 50 million people.” A more transmissible H5N1 virus, he believes, “could cause billions of illnesses and deaths around the world.”

Fouchier plans to keep to the NSABB’s recommendations as well as he can, but warns that it would be “very unwise” not to share information with his close collaborators in Indonesia, a major centre of H5N1 infection. A mechanism for sharing sensitive data with legitimate scientists is in the works and expected to be solidified in late February.


Graphic: Kara Passey/The Manitoban