Controversial influenza transmission studies resumed

After a yearlong halt, transmission studies on H5N1 will resume in Europe. This has been a controversial topic ever since the potential of avian flu for human-to-human spread was discovered last year. Until now the virus does not have the ability to spread from person to person. People contract flu from close contacts with infected birds and this has limited the spread and death tolls. But, last year scientists from the US, Netherlands and Japan pointed that the virus is only a few mutations away in acquiring the potential for a deadly human-to-human spread and cause a nasty pandemic.

A voluntary moratorium was announced last year, initially for 60 days, to decide on the safety of this kind of dual-use research and if such studies should be published. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked the journals not to publish them. After a huge debate on academic freedom versus biohazard and lab safety, Science and Nature eventually published these studies. However, the moratorium continued and all the avian flu transmission studies were stopped for more than a year.

On one hand, these studies provide great insights on understanding the mechanism of spread and allow for pandemic preparedness. Conversely, it is feared that the modified viruses could escape from the laboratories and go wild and also can be used for bioterrorism. The debate is still fierce in the scientific community.

But, scientists recently lifted the moratorium and are resuming these dual-use transmission studies. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization released biosafety recommendations for such studies and many countries have reviewed that biosafety standard in the laboratories. After these standards, scientists are resuming these studies in Europe and other countries. But, scientists in the United States and all the US funded research in any other countries cannot be resumed, as the decision has not been reached yet in the US. It is yet to see how things unfold.

Source: Science 1 February 2013 -

Posted 2 February 2013