Researchers have agreed to pause their work on the H5N1 avian influenza virus for the next 60 days. The research involved creating extra-contagious versions of the virus and seeing how it propagates among lab animals to enable the establishment of a propagation model.
The moratorium was announced on January 20th in both Nature and Science in response to public fear and alarm in the scientific community, which is split over whether the research could inadvertently lead to a global pandemic.
The controversy began last November, when Science reported that two teams of virologists, one led by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, and the other by Yoshihiro Kawaoko at the University of Wisconsin, had developed H5N1 strains capable of passing easily between ferrets. This information can then be used to model the propagation of influenza among humans. Whether the modified H5N1 viruses could make a species jump into humans has not yet been established, but it’s considered possible.
H5N1 is extraordinarily virulent in humans, with mortality rates between 60% and 80%, but far less contagious since it requires prolonged contact between infected birds and people to allow the virus to jump between species. Containing such an outbreak could be extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible, and millions of people would certainly die as a result, emulating what happened in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion film.
Scientists are also unsure what mutations can make H5N1 more transmissible between humans. The exact mechanics were to be identified by the two labs, but public outrage has stopped the research, at least for now. It’s possible that biological terrorists could use this research to develop weaponized flu strains. Another frightening thing is that there have been dozens of accidental infections at high-security labs in the US, and it’s now thought that one now-global flu strain may have escaped from a Russian laboratory in the 1970s.
Reception to the news of the moratorium appears to be mixed. Other scientists have stated that 60 days is too short to develop any meaningful policies. Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University microbiologist, has even stated that the moratorium is an empty gesture, simply public relations.