An international group of scientists this week ended a year-long moratorium on controversial work to engineer potentially deadly strains of the H5N1 avian flu virus in the lab.
Researchers agreed to temporarily halt the work in January 2012, after a fierce row erupted over whether it was safe to publish two papers reporting that the introduction of a handful of mutations enabled the H5N1 virus to spread efficiently between ferrets, a model of flu in mammals (see Nature http://doi.org/fxv55r; 2012). Both papers were eventually published, one in Nature1 and one in Science2.
Now, in a letter simultaneously published on 23 January by Nature and Science, the 40 scientists involved say that the moratorium has served its purpose: allowing time for authorities to review the conditions under which the research could be safely conducted and for scientists to explain the public-health benefits of the work. Scientists who now have official approval in their countries to conduct such research “have a public-health responsibility to resume this important work”, the letter states, “because the risk exists in nature that an H5N1 virus capable of transmission in mammals may emerge”.
The move follows a large international workshop convened on 17–18 December by the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, to discuss ‘gain-of-function research’ — that intended to increase the transmissibility, host range or virulence — in H5N1 viruses, and the development of US rules for stricter oversight of research in this area.
The proposed rules require an assessment of, for example, whether the scientific aims of such studies could be addressed using alternative, less-risky approaches, and whether biosafety and biosecurity risks can be adequately mitigated. They are expected to enter into force soon, allowing scientists working in the United States or on US-funded grants to restart such research.The link to Science will take you to the ScienceInsider report on the event. Dr. Vincent Racaniello is also on the story at his virology blog.