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Researchers Agree to Postpone Bird Flu Research

FRIDAY, Jan. 20 -- Scientists agreed Friday to a 60-day moratorium on research into a modified avian flu virus that has been demonstrated to be more transmissible among mammals.

Although the investigators believe their research has a public health benefit, they acknowledge the fear of some governments and others that the genetically altered virus could escape from labs and infect people.

This fear has caused a highly unusual debate among governments and scientists over the benefits and risks of the research.

Some scientists and biosecurity experts worry that such a mutated virus could trigger a human pandemic that might rival the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918-19 that killed an estimated 20 million and 40 million people worldwide.

In a letter appearing Jan. 20 in the journals Nature and Science, 38 researchers, including Yoshihiro Kawaoka from the University of Wisconsin and Ron Fouchier, from Erasmus University in the Netherlands, explain that the research with ferrets has already shown that the virus can be genetically manipulated to make it easier to transmit among mammals. No research has been done with humans because it would be unethical.

"No experiments with live H5N1 or H5 HA reassortant viruses already shown to be transmissible in ferrets will be conducted during this time. We will continue to assess the transmissibility of H5N1 influenza viruses that emerge in nature and pose a continuing threat to human health," the scientists wrote.

Ferrets are useful research animals because they transmit viruses much the way humans do.

The research is being temporally stopped, the scientists said, because they need additional time to share with the scientific community the benefits of the research to governments and public health organizations should the virus mutate in nature.

There's also the need to discuss "solutions and opportunities and challenges" arising from this research, they said.

"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 risks. We propose to do so in an international forum in which the scientific community comes together to discuss and debate these issues," they wrote.

With their statement the researchers want to reassure the public that their experiments are being done in a way that minimizes the risk of the virus escaping the lab.

In December, the U.S. government asked the researchers not to publish certain details about there experiments with the H5N1 flu virus, because of fears that it could possibly help terrorists develop a similar virus and use it as a weapon.

U.S. officials on Dec. 21 asked scientists behind a new laboratory-grown strain of "bird flu" to not disclose details of its composition, due to security concerns.

According to the Associated Press, the virus seems to spread more easily among mammals, and government officials worry that publication of its makeup might help terrorists create a biological weapon.

However, experts at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which funded the research, say publication in scientific journals of the virus' blueprint is important because it suggests the H5N1 strain may mutate more easily than was previously believed.

Avian flu strains have, in rare cases, been transmitted from birds to humans. The fear is that a strain of H5N1 might mutate to spread easily person-to-person, sparking a worldwide epidemic. The newly engineered strain appears to do so between ferrets, which have immune system responses to flu that are similar to those seen in people.

Based on that result, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which advises the U.S. government, looked over the research as it was being submitted to the journals Science and Nature. The board's recommendation prompted the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to request that the virus' full genetic blueprint not be published, the AP said.

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Posted: January 2012