Moratorium on 'bird flu' experiments ending soon

March 6, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
It was known as the bird flu when the human version of the H5N1 virus first surfaced in Asia nearly a decade ago. Since then, there have been nearly 600 confirmed cases, more than half of them fatal, and scientists have long worried about what new strains might be evolving in nature.

So, two separate research groups, one at the University of Wisconsin, created genetically-modified versions of the virus to study the changes.

"Whether it generates a virus that is more virulent, avirus that's less virulent, has different properties that transmit more easily," says Charles Chiu at UCSF.

Chiu is a researcher at UCSF's Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center. He says the criticism has centered on the possibility that a mutated super-strain could be released accidentally into the human population.

"They did produce a strain that now has the capacity to spread quite easily, as well as the capacity to cause a very dead disease, avian influenza," he says.

However, there is another scenario as well. Both research groups planned to publish the details of their experiment in prestigious medical journals. That has led to concerns that a rogue nation or terror group could duplicate the mutated strain and use it as a weapon for bio-terrorism. Both scenarios have touched off a debate about how to best oversee the creation of mutated virus in labs and whether certain details should be withheld from publication.

Dr. Margaret Hamburg is head of the FDA. She believes overly strict regulation cold hamper research.

"We'll never be able to identify and shut down all areas of research that could possibly have findings that could be misapplied; it would stall important advances in science," she says.

Back at UCSF, Dr. Chiu believes a number of agencies including the World Health Organization will need to negotiate a delicate balance, but he believes future research at UCSF may someday require the use of re-engineered virus.

"I feel not having the ability to do that in any capacity is very short sighted," he says. "These experiments, I believe, are absolutely necessary."

In a closed-door meeting last month of public health experts facilitated by the World Health Organization reportedly recommended that the research be published. Federal officials in this country are now asking a special bio-security panel to review the two research projects, and evaluate potential risks.


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