Controversial H5N1 Influenza Research
By Adele Blackler
H5N1, the highly pathogenic and deadly avian flu, has been causing panic since it first appeared in Hong Kong in 1997. Though the flu has a high mortality rate, it is very rarely transmissible between humans, and thus there has been no widespread epidemic or pandemic resulting from H5N1[i].
However, the announcement last year by two research groups, from the U.S. and the Netherlands, that they had identified key mutations that made the flu highly transmissible among ferrets, caused an outcry among the public and the scientific community. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, NSABB, raised concerns that full publication of the research methods could give potential bioterrorists a new weapon and asked that only redacted methods be published, to make it difficult to duplicate the results[ii].
Recently, a special World Health Organization (WHO) panel convened to discuss the flu research and, after discussion with the research authors and leading scientists in the field, recommended that the current voluntary halt to research should continue until a more thorough analysis of laboratory biosafety could be completed[iii]. However, in the interest of aiding public health efforts and scientific research, the WHO panel recommended that both papers be published with complete methods, meaning that the published methods will be complete enough to be replicated by other labs around the world with access to the starting material. In response, the NSABB has requested a second look at the manuscripts and research and Congressional Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) has questioned why this research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the first place[iv].
In an influenza pandemic, early detection and tracking is essential to being able to slow the spread of the virus and mitigate damage by quickly developing a vaccine. Understanding what mutations can make the H5N1 flu transmissible could help with early detection of emerging pandemic-causing strains and could make tracking the flu easier. This research could play a key role in understanding how the avian flu can become transmissible among humans, and that could help with early detection. Ultimately, if the H5N1 flu becomes highly transmissible among humans and turns into a pandemic-causing strain, early detection could save a countless number of lives.
Is the possibility of great public benefit enough to allow the H5N1 research to continue? Supporters of continuing this line of research point to the 1970s, when a new type of experiments involving altering DNA made headlines. Recombinant DNA research was also temporarily halted due to safety concerns, yet today DNA recombination experiments are routinely performed with no risk to health and safety[v].
Or is the risk that the deadly virus could escape the lab simply too great to justify continuation of the research? If research continues, what security measures should be in place? Further complicating the current debate is that many scientists in favor of H5N1 research are disagreeing about the biosafety level (BSL) a lab should have in place while working with the virus. Currently, most infectious disease labs work with the second highest level of biocontainment, BSL3. This is the same biocontainment level that was used for the current H5N1 research. Individuals in favor of raising the required BSL to the highest possible level (BSL4) argue that it is the safest way to work with the virus and minimize exposure. However, few labs in the nation are equipped for BSL4, and requiring such a high level of security might unduly restrict who can perform research on H5N1, effectively putting an end to most of the research on the virus[vi].
Currently, it looks like research on the engineered flu strain will resume at the end of the voluntary moratorium, and the results will most likely be published with full, not redacted, methods. However, the debate on whether or not this research should continue, and if the proposed benefits outweigh the possible risks, will continue for quite some time.