Scientists hit pause on killer flu research

By Emily Fasold

Researchers who created a potentially deadly “bird flu” strain have agreed to discontinue their work for 60 days. A consensus on what to do with the findings will be reached among world health officials later this month.

The voluntary hiatus, signed as a statement by 39 researchers, is a response to public concerns that the virus will escape laboratories and create a deadly pandemic.

“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,” researchers wrote in the announcement, published in the journals “Science” and “Nature.”

In an effort to protect public safety, researchers also asked the two science journals to hold off on publishing details about the strain’s makeup.

“The concern is that if the specific genetic sequences that made the H5N1 flu virus mutate are made public, people who intend to use it for harm could recreate it,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

The pause in the research, a rare move in the science community, has spurred an ethical debate of its own. During the hiatus, scientists and health officials will have to strike a balance between the belief that science can’t be censored and a responsibility to protect public health.

“This is a real dilemma because it weighs two very serious issues against each other, and unfortunately, they’re not in the same domain,” said Dr. Arthur Kohrman, a Chicago physician.

The research was conducted in two independent studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Erasmus MC, a university in the Netherlands.

According to Juergen Richt, a professor at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and a co-signer of the announcement, researchers created the strain so they could be prepared for future H5N1 mutations.

“[This] allows us to detect the strain much earlier in the field and gives us time to research treatment,” Richt said.

Researchers tested the strain on ferrets, considered the best model for flu transmission in humans, and found it to be both deadly and highly contagious. The research was conducted under bio-safety level 3 standards, meaning air lock pressure was used, according to Susan Fisher-Hoch, an epidemiology professor at the University of Texas. Maximum security would involve level 4 standards.

Fisher-Hoch said she is critical of the safety measures that researchers took and believes that more caution should have been taken.

“I seriously don’t think that enough thought was given to this,” she said. “I think that researchers should have put a lot more input into how they were doing this and their bio-containment before they started.”

Unlike the H1N1 “swine flu” virus of 2009, which mainly affected children and groups with weakened immune systems, the new strain is dangerous to everyone, Fisher-Hoch said.

Kohrman agreed that the virus could become an enormous public health issue if it were to escape the laboratory.

“If this strain is transmissible in humans, all it would take is one person to make it spread like wildfire,” he said.

Experts hope to clarify the risks of the new strain and find solutions at a conference with the World Health Organization later this month.

“We need to discuss this with people who do not see the importance and relevance of our research in a positive environment,” Richt said. “This way, we can give our rationales and hopefully something positive will come from it.”