Flu scientists agree to 60-day ‘pause’ in bird-flu research

January 20, 2012

The world’s leading influenza scientists on Friday said they will stop certain experiments on H5N1 “bird flu” for 60 days while the research community considers how much information about the highly lethal virus should be released to the public.

The decision comes a month after the U. S. government asked the journals Science and Nature to withhold details on how two laboratories made strains of H5N1 that are as deadly as the “wild” version but may be far more transmissible to people.

“We are doing this to give a little bit of breathing room to the infectious disease field, international organizations and governments,” said Ron A. M. Fouchier, a virologist in the Netherlands whose research paper is one of the ones the U.S. government wants redacted. “It is not a time for panicky actions.”

Fouchier got 38 other flu scientists around the world to sign a letter, published online by Science, announcing the self-imposed moratorium.

For the next two months, work on the lab-created bird flu will stop. There will be no studies of whether the currently approved H5N1 vaccine protects against the new strains — something that both pharmaceutical companies and public health agencies eagerly want to know. Analysis of wild H5N1 strains causing illness around the world will continue, however. So far this year there have been fatal human cases in Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

“I think it had to be done,” Robert G. Webster, a virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, said of the moratorium. “We have to decide on the way forward. These papers are game-changers in the influenza field.”

At the same time, the World Health Organization’s director of health security, Keiji Fukuda, confirmed that WHO will convene a meeting in Geneva next month to discuss the issue and seek consensus about how much, if any, data about lab-made flu strains should stay under wraps.

The two moves effectively make an international conversation out of what appeared to be an argument between the U.S. government and two labs along with the journals seeking to publish their findings.

“H5N1 is clearly a global issue that goes well beyond the concern of the United States,” said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He said the government supports the moratorium.

Any policies that come out of the two-month hiatus, however, are likely to be voluntary, as WHO doesn’t have the authority to ban or censor research, and it would be highly unusual for the federal government to stop a scientific paper’s publication.

H5N1, which devastates chicken flocks, first caused human disease in 1997. Since then there have been 581 confirmed cases, 342 of them fatal. Nearly all have occurred in Southeast Asia in people with close contact with infected birds. Person-to-person spread is extremely rare.

The two research groups — Fouchier’s in Rotterdam and one at the University of Wisconsin led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka — created H5N1 strains that were both lethal about 60 percent of the time and easily transmitted between ferrets, the lab animals used as surrogates for human beings in flu research.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, created by the federal government after the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, reviewed the papers. It advised the Department of Health and Human Services that it ask the journals not to publish the methods for making the strains, and not to identify the specific gene sequences and mutations that appear responsible for the virus’s easy transmissibility.

The journals reluctantly agreed as long as provisions were made to give all the data to scientists and governments with a legitimate need for it. Who those are and how to do it will be major topics of the Geneva meeting.

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