The experiment involved ferrets who acquired the virus, previously almost exclusive only to birds, through respiratory droplets. There was concern that this discovery may lead to the virus affecting humans.
Based on rare cases of humans contracting H5N1, there is a 59% chance of mortality once the disease is contracted. To put this into perspective, the Spanish Flu in 1918 that killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people the world over, only had a mortality rate of just 2%.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity is a panel of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. It was decided by the panel that the research behind H5N1 poses a significant health and security threat. They recommended restricting the publication of results from research on H5N1 avian influenza virus, leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals.
In January 2012, influenza researchers from around the world announced a voluntary pause on any research involving H5N1 influenza viruses which may lead to it being more transmissible in mammals.
H5N1 Controversy One Year Later
Correspondence signed by 40 influenza virus researchers and jointly published in Science and Nature this week announces that the voluntary pause on certain types of H5N1 avian influenza research should end in countries where the aims of this moratorium have been met and authorities have reached decisions about how best to conduct such work safely.
In 2012, two research teams published findings in Science and Nature about changes that could be introduced to the H5N1 influenza virus to make it transmissible between ferrets via respiratory droplets. The work could assist efforts to develop global influenza biosurveillance as well as drugs and vaccines to protect against this threat. The findings underscored the risk that a similarly transmissible virus might evolve naturally and cause a human pandemic. Concerns also emerged about the safety of such research, including the possibility that it could be used for harmful purposes. In January of last year, influenza researchers from around the world announced a voluntary pause on any research involving H5N1 influenza viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals. The purpose was to provide time to explain the public health benefits of this work, to describe the measures in place to minimize possible risks, and to enable organizations and governments around the world to review their policies regarding these experiments.
Video: Debating research into mutant H5N1 flu virus
In the new letter, the original signatories now explain that the aims of this voluntary moratorium have been met in some countries and are close to being met in others. H5N1 viruses continue to evolve in nature, and H5N1 virus transmission studies are essential for pandemic preparedness. Thus, researchers who have approval from their governments and institutions to conduct this research safely, under appropriate biosafety and biosecurity conditions, have a public health responsibility to resume this important work, the authors write. They caution, however, that scientists should not restart their work in countries where no decision has yet been reached on the conditions for this research, including the United States and U.S.-funded research conducted in other countries.
This letter will be available to the public along with past Science research, commentary and news articles at http://www.sciencemag.org/site/special/h5n1/index.xhtml.
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity
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