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Scientists agree to 60-day pause in controversial bird flu research

By Karen Herzog and Mark Johnson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

MILWAUKEE — A Dutch scientist and a University of Wisconsin-Madison virologist whose bird flu research sparked an international controversy are among 39 scientists who agreed Friday to halt their research for 60 days to allow time to assure the public the experiments are safe.

The UW’s Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Ron Fouchier of the Netherlands had submitted their research breakthroughs, reached independently, to the journals Nature and Science.

But a national biosecurity advisory board review of the manuscripts last month set off fierce debate when the board recommended leaving out key details on how the deadly virus was genetically altered to make it more transmissible among humans. The research was done with ferrets, which are thought to mimic humans in the way they transmit viruses.

The 60-day moratorium came as a result of discussions Wednesday night and Thursday morning between Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Fouchier, the virologist whose research group at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam was among the first to develop the transmissible strain of H5N1.

Rhetoric in the scientific community and the media “was really getting too heated. … I thought it would be really a good time for a timeout,” Fauci said.

The moratorium is intended to allow time for an international forum, possibly next month in Geneva, where scientists can discuss and debate the direction and safety of this type of research, as well as determine how the research can be shared responsibly, according to a letter signed by the 39 scientists and published Friday by the journals Science and Nature.

“We recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible effects,” says the letter, noting that whether the ferret-adapted viruses actually have the ability to transmit from human to human cannot be tested in a lab.

Some scientists have contended that the research never should have been done because it’s too dangerous, and the viruses could accidentally escape from laboratories. An editorial in The New York Times called for the viruses to be destroyed or moved to government laboratories with the highest level of biosafety.

Fauci said he explained to Fouchier that “people beyond our control” might put pressure on the National Institutes of Health to pull funding from such research and “the better part of valor might be for the scientists themselves to propose the moratorium.” He stressed, though, that there was never an explicit threat to pull funding and that the scientists undertook the moratorium willingly.

The 60-day time frame came about through mutual agreement, Fauci said, indicating that Fouchier “was concerned about having an open-ended moratorium that would go on forever.”

Fauci also contacted the World Health Organization to find out if it could host a discussion of the issues raised by the research. He said such a meeting is likely to take place in Geneva next month.

An agreement by a group of scientists to halt specific research so they can police themselves is not unprecedented.

Because of potential safety hazards, scientists worldwide in 1975 halted experiments using the recombinant DNA technology, also known as genetic engineering. An international group of 140 biologists, physicians and lawyers gathered in February 1975 in California to draw up voluntary guidelines to ensure the safety of the technology.

The main goal of that gathering was to address biohazards. But recommendations also came out of the conference for how to safely conduct experiments using the technology, which involved combining DNA from different organisms. Guidelines also forbade certain experiments, including the cloning of recombinant DNA derived from highly pathogenic organisms.

The NIH applauded the decision Friday to halt the bird flu transmissibility research so an international forum can be held.

“We applaud the decision by these scientists, who have demonstrated great responsibility and flexibility in pausing their work to allow for a full dialogue about the risks and benefits of this research,” Francis S. Collins, director of the NIH, said in a statement Friday.

The NIH, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other U.S. government agencies that conduct or fund this type of research will also abide by the moratorium, Collins said.

The suspension applies both to research that enhances the transmissibility of highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses in mammals and any experiments with H5N1 viruses already shown to be transmissible in ferrets.

Current strains of the bird flu virus, or H5N1, have a human fatality rate from 30 percent to 80 percent, making this one of the most virulent known human infectious diseases, according to an article published online Friday in the journal Science by Michael T. Osterholm and Donald A. Henderson. Osterholm is director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota; Henderson is at the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The bird flu virus that has circulated in Asia for years rarely spreads among people. If it became easily transmissible, health officials fear it could cause a pandemic, or global flu outbreak, that could kill millions.

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