The Great H5N1 Debate
The moratorium on H5N1 research has ended, but concerns still abound.
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.
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