Researchers set to resume lab-bred bird flu studies

Just more than a year after putting a voluntary moratorium on certain experiments involving the H5N1 avian influenza virus, researchers say the studies should restart.

Forty researchers wrote a letter published in Science and Nature declaring an end to the moratorium now that scientists, government researchers and the public have had the opportunity to discuss the need for and value of the research. The initial moratorium, announced Jan. 20, 2012, was only set to last 60 days. But debate over the safety of some research heated up, prompting the scientists to extend the agreement indefinitely.

An experiment in 2011 in which two research teams gave the play-by-play of how to re-engineer the avian influenza virus so it can move between mammals heightened fears about how that information might be used. A global debate ensued, with critics of the research arguing that terrorists could use the data to weaponize the virus and spark a deadly human pandemic.

Now some scientists say a year has been long enough for public health experts to volley the issue. "Transmission research benefits public health," said Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison at a news conference announcing the moratorium's end, as quoted by Wired. "The greater risk is not doing research that could help us be better equipped for a pandemic."

That's not to say everyone's on board. Other researchers say public health officials never determined that the benefits outweigh the risks or that new safety precautions are in place. Richard Ebright, a microbiologist at Rutgers University, called the lift on the moratorium "dangerously irresponsible."

U.S.-funded scientists cannot resume research until the government finalizes a set of research guidelines; this should wrap up within several weeks, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told The Associated Press. The guidelines add an extra layer of review to determine whether a study is scientifically valuable and safe, and that bioterrorism concerns have been addressed.

The H5N1 virus spreads mainly among poultry and birds, rarely infecting humans. But new virus strains that spread through the air--such as those created separately by Kawaoka, along with Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University in the Netherlands--are what truly worry the critics.

- read the letter (sub. req.)
- see more from Wired
- get the AP's take