Controversial Research On Deadly, Lab-Created Bird Flu Will Start Up Again

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Photo: CDC/public domain

Influenza researchers announced today that they would be lifting the moratorium on certain types of research into the Bird Flu, including making mutated viruses in the lab, which had been in effect for about a year.The research — discovering what changes to the avian flu virus would make it transmissible through the air in mammals — was put on hold after people started raising fears that the virus could escape or be stolen from the biocontainment facilities.

A letter representing the 40-researcher committee was published today, Jan. 23, in both Nature and Science.

“In those countries where the research could be done safely the research should be done,” Ron Fouchier, flu researcher with the Erasmus Medical centre in The Netherlands, said in a press conference today.

Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin Madison and the University of Tokyo followed up by saying: “We can conduct these experiments safely. The risk can be minimized and managed. We have always followed rules in the past and we will follow any new rules our government comes up with.”

Dangerous engineering

In nature, the H5N1 virus lives in birds, and has started infecting mammals, though it can’t pass between mammals through the air. Work released last year indicated that it would only take about six to nine mutations in the naturally occurring flu virus before it can pass between mammals through the air, and these mutations are even found in virus in the wild.

To be better prepared if these mutations come together in the wild, researchers want to continue with their planned work, which is technically called “transmission studies” they will create the mutated virus in the lab, where they would study it in ferrets.

This is important for developing and testing vaccines and drugs, and learning how viruses make the jump to being transmitted through the air.

Government regulation

The work would be done in “BSL 3 +” facilities and procedures, which when performed correctly should decrease the chance of a viral escape to almost nothing. Bad things can happen though when these facilities aren’t well regulated. SARS escaped from a BSL3 facility in Beijing twice, actually killing someone. Why? Because the lab was poorly run and the researchers using the facilities weren’t trained correctly.

The researchers said they’ve met repeatedly with “intelligence officials” who say the risk is low that someone would intentionally release the virus.

With the lifting of the voluntary stop-work order, researchers around the globe will be able to restart their studies of the virus. The moratorium is still in effect in the U.S., however, because the National Institutes of Health haven’t finished establishing guidelines on how the research should be conducted. They have a draft of guidelines that is in a public comment period, Kawaoka said. They can’t say when these guidelines would be approved, but it could be anywhere from months to years.

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