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June 16, 2024

Scientists opt to suspend H5N1 research

By Mali Wiederkehr | February 1, 2012

The scientific community was significantly shaken this past December when, for the very first time in history, the US government requested that research journals withhold details of a study from the public. The study concerns a highly pathogenic avian influenza strain known as H5N1, whose transmissibility features have been genetically altered by a team of Dutch scientists, leaving the virus highly contagious and a threat to global security.

The researchers responsible for modifying the virus have recently agreed to a 60-day halt on the project in order to allow experts to discuss the possibility of continuing the research without the fear of a worldwide pandemic. The pause marks the second suspension in biomedical research to ever occur in the United States (the first took place between 1974-1976 and concerned safety of recombinant DNA).

"I think the voluntary 60 day suspension of research on enhanced transmissibility of highly pathogenic avian influenza in mammals, as well as any experiments with H5N1 viruses already shown to be transmissible in ferrets, is a wise and prudent step to take," Dr. Lewis Schrager, an infectious diseases specialist and instructor of the Hopkins intersession course Vaccine Development, wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

"Given the potential serious consequences of either an accidental release of a transmissible form of H5N1 from a research laboratory, or of the purposeful creation and release of such a virus as a form of bioterrorism, I believe that this suspension is necessary to provide an opportunity to better define generally accepted parameters for such research."

In its natural state, the H5N1 virus causes flu in birds. However, 600 human cases have been recorded since 1997. Roughly half of the affected individuals died, demonstrating the virus's extremely high death rate in humans.

"It's not just the potential of pandemic spread that is a concern, however; it's the potential impact of the spread of this particular strain of influenza virus that has public health officials worried.  Human infection with H5N1 has demonstrated an extraordinary degree of mortality; approximately 60% of all people documented to become infected with H5N1 have died.  Fortunately, fewer than 600 human infections have been reported, and virtually all acquired their infection through direct contact with infected birds. The very few who acquired infection from another person did so while caring for that person, presumably following heavy exposure to infected secretions," Dr. Schrager wrote.

Recent experiments have successfully transformed the virus to a highly contagious, airborne form, meaning that merely breathing it in can cause one to contact H5N1. The research was performed on ferrets, whose reaction to the virus is believed to be quite similar to that of humans.

The experiments have caused much controversy because of the virus's potential to be exploited as biological warfare by terrorist organizations or other such groups in want of harming the US. Consequently, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a government advisory panel, has asked that major research journals including Science and Nature to withhold details of the experiments. Their aim is to eliminate the possibility of unwanted groups replicating the results.

Dr. Schrager believes that the recommendation to withhold details of the research is wise. "Any laboratory-manufactured, highly transmissible strain of organism has the potential to spread following accidental or deliberate release, just as a naturally occurring, highly transmissible strain harbors a similar potential.  Regarding H5N1, if a strain were made that had a sufficient ease of human to human transmissibility, it certainly could spread and eventually become pandemic, given the relative absence of natural immunity to this strain within humans."

H5N1 seems to pose a real threat when placed within the realm of historical pandemics and highly transmittable diseases. "The horrific Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed at least 50 million persons worldwide (3% or more of the world's population) in a very short time and has been called the single most deadly disaster in history killed approximately 10% - 20% of those it infected. Given this, and in light of the extraordinary mortality rate resulting from H5N1 infection, one can understand the concern about the creation of a highly transmissible form of H5N1" Dr. Schrager wrote.

Many scientists and political figures involved in the controversy believe that the 60-day suspension of research is too short a period to allow for a workable international policy regarding the virus. Thus, H5N1 continues to be the subject of intense public contention until an adequate arrangement can be reached.


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