A self-imposed moratorium by researchers on certain kinds of avian influenza experiments lifted January 23.
In January 2012, influenza researchers imposed a halt on work that would create bird flu viruses that are easily transmissible in mammals. The moratorium came after controversy surrounded two scientific papers describing mutations in the H5N1 avian influenza virus. The mutations enabled the virus to spread among ferrets via airborne droplets. The scientists chose to stop the work until they could explain its benefits and safety to the public, and to give governments and funding agencies a chance to review policies surrounding the research. The halt was supposed to last 60 days, but has lasted for a year because of the complicated issues surrounding the research.
Now, the same group of 40 researchers has declared in a letter published by both Nature and Science that the goals of the moratorium have been met and that work on the viruses may resume in countries with appropriate policies in place. The United States is not among those countries.
The researchers say they are confident that imposing multiple safety measures can prevent an accidental or malicious release of a version of the H5N1 virus that could pass easily from person to person. "There can never be zero risk," says Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Tokyo, but scientists can minimize the risks. Meanwhile, the virus continues to mutate in nature, and some of the mutations identified in the laboratory studies have already been found in wild H5N1 viruses. With resumption of the work, researchers say they can monitor which strains are developing dangerous mutations, identify new mutations and test vaccines and antiviral drugs.
"We believe this research is important to pandemic preparedness," Kawaoka says. He and Ron Fouchier, an influenza researcher from Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, led the research that originally touched off the controversy. …