Researchers to Resume Studies of Bird-Flu Virus, Except in U.S.

January 23, 2013

The voluntary moratorium on bird-flu studies is mostly over.

Controversial research into how the H5N1 virus can spread to human beings will now resume, a team of 40 biomedical researchers announced on Wednesday in a joint letter published in Science and Nature. While scientists overseen and financed by some countries, notably the United States, should wait until new research guidelines are finished, they wrote, researchers working on the virus in regions that have already dealt with the issue, including most of Europe, can be expected to resume their work presently.

"We believe this research is important to pandemic preparedness," said Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "The greater risk," he added, "is not doing research that can help us to be equipped to deal with a pandemic."

Mr. Kawaoka was a lead author of an H5N1 study that sparked fears from security experts and regulators that research into the virus's spread could facilitate, not prevent, threats to public health. While Mr. Kawaoka's study, along with work by Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center, in the Netherlands, was eventually published, the two scientists, along with 38 others, volunteered last January to suspended their research pending government review.

Whether to conduct the H5N1 work boils down to a judgment of risks and benefits, and the controversy enabled a fruitful review of such research, Nature added in an editorial. "The debate has drawn attention to, and exposed gaps in, the rules that govern 'dual-use' research," Nature's editors wrote. That discussion will not end anytime soon, and will continue at a meeting in February of the World Health Organization.

But talks with intelligence agencies indicated little threat that publication of H5N1 research would help terrorists or states seeking to adapt the work for malicious ends, Mr. Fouchier said.

The United States, which supports the majority of H5N1 research, has not yet completed its guidelines governing the work. (The National Institutes of Health is accepting comments until January 31 on proposed rules released in November, but it has not said when final guidelines will be released.) Mr. Kawaoka is financed by NIH, so his work will not yet resume. Mr. Fouchier, however, will use European funds to begin his research within the next few weeks.

It is not up to the world to wait for the United States, Mr. Fouchier added.

"If this had been the Netherlands," he said, "would the U.S. wait?"