The Great H5N1 Debate
The moratorium on H5N1 research has ended, but concerns still abound.
Published January 25, 2013
The voluntary moratorium on research of the H5N1 virus (also called bird or avian flu) has ended, as of January 23. In a letter simultaneously published by Nature and Science, 40 scientists explained their decision to resume H5N1 research, citing "a public-health responsibility to resume this important work."
About a year ago, research on H5N1 became the topic of a contentious debate among the scientific community. The debate started when two research papers were submitted for publication (one to Nature and one to Science), both centering on genetically mutated strains of H5N1 that allowed for airborne transmission of the flu in a ferret model (an accepted mammal model for flu research). In nature, H5N1 does not readily transmit from birds to humans (that is, there is no airborne transmission).
When the research papers—one by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, and one by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the US—were submitted for publication, concerns were raised throughout the scientific community (and beyond). Critics of the research questioned the justification for such research, the ability of biosecure labs to contain the mutated H5N1 viruses without accidental release, and the potential for published research methods to fall into the hands of potential bioterrorists.
Researchers agreed to a voluntary moratorium on H5N1 research while the issues were explored by the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and other national and international organizations. In Spring 2012, revised versions of the original papers were published by Nature and Science. The research moratorium, however, was kept intact as the debate raged on—until last week.
In December, the US Department of Health and Human Services proposed a new policy framework for deciding whether "gain-of-function" (also called "dual use") research would be funded. (Dual-use research is research with the potential to be used to harm public health or safety.) The policy includes provisions for assessments of: the benefits and risks of a research project, possible research alternatives, and the adequacy of current biosafety measures to contain such research.
Where do your views fall in the H5N1 debate? Peruse the following Academy resources to learn more about the issues behind dual-use research, the spillover of viruses between animals and humans, and pandemic prevention.
eBriefing and Video
Dual Use Research: H5N1 Influenza Virus and Beyond
Read the recap of the Academy's 2012 event that took place at the start of the H5N1 debate, or watch the event video. Led by moderator and noted virologist Ian Lipkin, a panel of experts provide their varying viewpoints on the risks and benefits of H5N1 research.
Human Swine Flu (H1N1) and Novel Influenza Pandemics
When novel influenza strains originate in animals such as birds or pigs and then make the jump to humans, the severity of the resulting disease is unpredictable. Experts discuss current data and insights into human swine flu, as well as strategies that could help quell the impact of future pandemic strains or a more virulent form of H1N1.
Wrath Goes Viral: Part 1
Panelists Dr. Ian Lipkin, Captain Daniel B. Jernigan, and author Maryn McKenna consider the evolution of viruses, the spillover of pathogens from animals to humans, and cultural practices that increase the rate of this phenomenon. The discussion is moderated by award-winning author David Quammen.
Wrath Goes Viral: Part 2
Panelists discuss factors involved in preventing outbreaks from reaching pandemic scales. The SARS virus and SARS-like virus that appeared in 2012 in Saudi Arabia provide interesting case studies for considering containment policy.
About the New York Academy of Sciences
The New York Academy of Sciences is an independent, not-for-profit organization that since 1817 has been committed to advancing science, technology, and society worldwide. With 25,000 members in 140 countries, the Academy is creating a global community of science for the benefit of humanity. The Academy's core mission is to advance scientific knowledge, positively impact the major global challenges of society with science-based solutions, and increase the number of scientifically informed individuals in society at large. Please visit us online at www.nyas.org.