A year-long voluntary moratorium on research involving transmissible H5N1 avian flu viruses ended today with a letter from a group of scientists that supports resuming the work in countries that have addressed the biosafety issues involved.
Today's letter, endorsed by 40 scientists who signed on to the voluntary moratorium last year, appeared in the journals Science and Nature. The research pause was designed to allow countries and the scientific community to discuss biosecurity and biosafety issues that were raised by the publication of two controversial H5N1 papers, one from a group in the Netherlands led by Ron Fouchier, PhD, and the other from a team at the University of Wisconsin led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, DVM, PhD.
The scientists wrote that the moratorium allowed the community to explain the public health benefits of the transmission studies, to describe the systems that are in place to protect researchers and the public, and to allow organizations and governments to review their policies regarding the experiments.
"Thus acknowledging that the aims of the voluntary moratorium have been met in some countries and are close to being met in others, we declare an end to the voluntary moratorium on avian flu transmission studies," they wrote. The moratorium was originally planned to last 60 days.
Three of the researchers who signed the letter—Fouchier, Kawaoka, and Richard Webby, PhD, from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis—spoke about the end of the research moratorium today at a media telebriefing sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the publisher of Science.
Kawaoka said the research work needs to resume, because it has important public health benefits, such as providing more clues about what it would take for the H5N1 virus to become more transmissible in mammals.
"We understand the risk, and we take every precaution," he said. "The benefit outweighs the risks. That is why we need to resume."
Many countries have reviewed their oversight of H5N1 research issues, so the need for the moratorium has passed, said Webby.