Time to resume controversial flu experiments, scientists say

Staff cull chickens in a Hong Kong market on June 7, 2008, after the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus was found (AFP/File, Andrew Ross)

Staff cull chickens in a Hong Kong market on June 7, 2008, after the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus was found
(AFP/File, Andrew Ross)

Postmedia News, Jan 23, 2013

Leading researchers, including a senior scientist at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory, say it’s time to resume controversial flu experiments that raised fears of  “doomsday” viruses escaping from the lab.

The scientists declared an end Wednesday to their voluntary year-long moratorium on experiments that makes highly pathogenic H5N1 avian flu virus transmissible in mammals.

In a letter published in two major research journals,the researchers say the dreaded virus continues to evolve in nature and H5N1 virus transmission studies are “essential for pandemic preparedness.”

Several teams are keen to get on with the research including the special pathogens group headed by Gary Kobinger at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

Kobinger says his team is interested in running experiments in the lab’s maximum-security containment facility as part of an international effort to test how effective vaccines and anti-viral drugs are against mutated H5N1 viruses.

But he says it will likely be months for the necessary policies and approvals are put in place.

“In Canada, as we speak right now, we are not ready to start,” Kobinger said in an interview with Postmedia News.

Kobinger is one of the 40 scientists who signed a letter published Wednesday in the journals Science and Nature declaring an end to the moratorium on H5NI transmission studies.

The scientists agreed to the moratorium last January after an international furor erupted over experiments in the US and Netherlands that altered H5N1 and enabled the viruses to spread in ferrets, which are considered the best proxy for humans when studying the flu.

The experiments made the viruses potentially more dangerous and triggered intense debate about creating “doomsday” viruses in the lab. Critics argued the viruses might have the potential to trigger a human pandemic if they escaped or fell into the hands of bioterrorists.

The controversy prompted the US research authorities to propose a new framework for assessing and funding so-called “gain of function” research and the World Health Organization has recommended that labs altering H5N1 conform to international risk management standards.

The scientists say in Wednesday’s letter that research into H5N1 transmission should restart, but only with government approval and under appropriate biosafety and biosecurity conditions. They say the US, a major funder of such researcher, does not yet have the necessary precautions in place.

In a teleconference Wednesday the leader of the US team, Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,  says his group will wait for  the new US guidelines before restarting their experiments, while the head of the Dutch team said he is gearing up to resume research financed with European funds.

Virologist Ron Fouchier, at the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, says they still have to order new ferrets but the experiments could resume in the next few weeks.

The scientists say the year long “pause” in the work has enabled the public, government and biosecurity and biosafety communities to discuss and better assess the risks and benefits of the experiments that aim to understand what kind of mutations could make the H5N1 virus transmissible in humans and cause a pandemic.

They stress their goal is to make the world a safety place. “The greater risk is not doing research that could help us be better equipped to deal with a pandemic,” Kawaoka said.

He and Fouchier noted there are strict protocols and “many layers” of safety build into the experiments that are conducted  in biohazard “moon suits” in high security laboratories.

“We can conduct these experiments safely,” said Kawaoka. “There can never be zero risk, but the risk can be minimized and managed.”

The editors of the journal Nature stress that “experiments that make deadly pathogens more dangerous demand the utmost scrutiny.”

They say  in an editorial that “an irreproachable, independent risk-benefit analysis” of such research “is still lacking.”   The new WHO guidelines developed as a result of the moratorium and controversy encourage a culture of safety, the editors say.  But they  “lack any means of enforcement” to prevent work from proceeding in labs that are not able to identify or control the risks of tinkering with H5N1, the editorial says.

H5N1 is not yet contagious between people but is a big concern to public health officials because in so deadly. Almost half the people infected with the virus have died, a much higher mortality rate than the Spanish flu that killed millions of people in the pandemic of 1918 and 1919.

The US and Dutch lab experiments showed that H5N1 bird flu is able to mutate and spread among ferrets – and presumably humans. And the work indicates it might take just a few mutations to viruses already in circulation to trigger a pandemic.

Researchers say that as the world spent a year debating how to control H5N1 experiments in the lab, the virus has continued to evolve and mutate in wild and domestic Eurasian bird flocks.

“You can rest assured that highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 did not take a moratorium on its transmission studies and in fact a new strain has been detected killing duck flocks in Indonesia this season,” says Earl Brown, executive director of the Emerging Pathogens Research Centre at the University of Ottawa, who has been following the controversy closely.

He agrees it is time to resume the research. “We need to understand how viruses work and evolve in order to control them,” Brown said by email.

Kobinger concurs saying it’s  “proactive” to explore how H5N1 viruses can mutate and how to control them: “If ever we see this coming out in nature, we would have data indicating if vaccines works, which drugs works.”



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