Bird flu research back on

The H5N1 virus, shown in gold. Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The H5N1 virus, shown in gold. Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A little over year ago, influenza researchers called a moratorium on their work involving H5N1, otherwise known as bird flu. Ordinarily, we can’t contract the disease from birds, so the researchers had been genetically modifying the virus to make transferable between ferrets, so as to monitor what might happen if it became contagious for mammals. That raised a red flag among many in the public, and people called to shut down the research for fear of the engineered virus escaping the lab. The world’s leading 40 influenza experts understood the public’s apprehension and decided to take a step back from the research for a year.

It was a reasonable enough fear, but now those experts feel it no longer validates putting off their research. In the coming weeks, many influenza research labs will be whirring back to life.

Some of the researchers, including Virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, understand that it’s not the simplest decision, but feel that the benefits of continuing the research outweighs the costs. Fouchier’s lab will begin preparing to re-open immediately.

In the U.S. there’s a bit of a wait. The government is still working on guidelines as to what kind of H5N1 testing will be eligible for federal funding  and how those labs must be configured and run. Until then, researchers in the states will have to go without government money or will have to wait a bit longer.

Critics still claim that labs aren’t ready to contain the deadly, engineered H5N1 and that there’s not clear enough reasoning to continue the research. But scientists say the mutation could happen naturally outside the lab, so it behooves researchers to be prepared for an already existent threat.

Researchers have published a letter in Science and Nature explaining why they’ve ended the moratorium.


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