In Unprecedented Move Scientists Agree to Halt Bird Flu Research -- For Now

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

Today scientists agreed to put a complete halt to avian flu experiments that trun the virus into forms potentially transmissible between human beings.

In an unprecedented move, scientists all over the world have agreed to STOP THEIR RESEARCH for 60 days, pending an international forum. In a just-posted letter signed by the top experts on H5N1 virology, and hosted by Science magazine, the scientists state:

Despite the positive public health benefits these studies sought to provide, a perceived fear that the ferret-transmissible H5 HA viruses may escape from the laboratories has generated intense public debate in the media on the benefits and potential harm of this type of research. We would like to assure the public that these experiments have been conducted with appropriate regulatory oversight in secure containment facilities by highly trained and responsible personnel to minimize any risk of accidental release. Whether the ferret-adapted influenza viruses have the ability to transmit from human to human cannot be tested. We recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks. We propose to do so in an international forum in which the scientific community comes together to discuss and debate these issues.

The World Health Organization has separately indicated that it will also host  a forum on this topic, presumably in Geneva, within the next 60 days. The only precedent we are aware of for such a collective agreement to bring a scientific pursuit to a temporary halt is the Asilomar Conference of 1975. At the dawn of the genetic engineering revolution, Stanford University researchers Paul Berg and Stanley Cohen took a deep breath and asked, "If we use viruses as vehicles to shepherd genes into organisms, could this pose environmental or health dangers for humanity?" While the researchers did not collectively agree to halt all their work at Asilomar, they did collectively decide to put a moratorium on certain types of experiments pending demonstration of their safety. From Asilomar arose the Recombinant Advisory Committee (RAC), which was institutionalized inside the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a monitor of genetic engineering science. The RAC had the power to tell NIH grant recipients to either cease certain experiments entirely, or modify the efforts to enhance public safety. None of the nightmares envisioned by public opponents of genetic engineering research ever materialized. The caution shown by the scientific community no doubt contributed to this positive outcome, though during the 1970s many members of the public and the political community viewed the new science as amoral, Frankenstein-like, nightmarishly dangerous, and generally frightening.

The decision reached by flu researchers to pause and consider the implications of Ron Fouchier and Yoshi Kawaoka's separate experiments is nothing less than historic.

In addition, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) is now considering guidelines for future flu, and other microbial research. Amy Patterson, who heads the Science Policy Office at the National Institutes of Health, which oversees the NSABB, tells Reuters:

The U.S. government will be coming out with a draft policy that will present a comprehensive framework for oversight of dual-use research, and the local review component of that will be outlined. This will be very much informed by our recent experiences. There will also be an opportunity for comment from the scientific community, from institutions, and of course from the general public. So people will have a chance to weigh in and help shape what the ultimate requirements will be.

This dramatic set of announcements came today amid reports that other laboratories, besides the Wisconsin and Rotterdam labs that initially executed experiments that transformed the highly virulent bird virus into one that was about 60 percent transmissible among mammals, are also working on such experiments. It is widely rumored that at least two other major laboratories have made mammalian-transmissible forms of H5N1. We are unable to confirm or deny these reports at this time.

The H5N1 experiments have spawned a level of debate and emotion rarely seen within the scientific community or the national security field. For a flavor of this debate see:

It seems inappropriate that this debate, and the search for solutions to balance public health needs against biosecurity, should proceed exclusively among scientists. It is in the interests of the scientific community to broaden the discussion, bringing in a broad swath of civil society and intellectual leaders. Failing to do so virtually guarantees that politicians, with all their irrelevant but potentially damaging agendas, will take actions that scientists will not like one bit.