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Moratorium Over, Scientists Will Restart Avian Flu Research

Understanding how the virus passes between mammals is a critical public health issue, they say.

Scientists studying avian influenza, a potentially deadly disease that can sometimes infect other animals, including humans, announced today that their work will resume following the moratorium that began last year amid safety concerns.

Because of widespread controversy over the risk of a more transmissible virus escaping or being used for bioterrorism, influenza researchers around the world agreed in January 2012 to stop any work that could generate more transmissible versions of the avian flu, also known as H5N1. What was originally supposed to be a 60-day pause turned into a yearlong moratorium.

Today, the same 40 researchers who signed on to the moratorium announced at a press conference and in letters published in both Science and Nature that the work would resume in countries where governments have agreed to oversight and lab safety measures. In a teleconference, the researchers said that work at specialized labs in the European Union, Canada, and China will restart, but that scientists in the U.S. and Japan still await final guidelines and decisions from their governments.

The researchers say it is important to resume the work to prepare for a potential bird flu pandemic, and that the pause has given governments time to review their biosafety and biosecurity policies and researchers time to explain the public health benefits of the work.

“We believe this research is important to pandemic preparedness,” said Yoshihiro Kawaoka, an influenza researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Tokyo. “Understanding how the avian virus is adapted to mammals will lead to better surveillance and vaccines,” he said.

H5N1 is deadly to birds and rarely infects humans, but it has killed some 360 people since 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To better understand how the virus could potentially be spread between humans through sneezes or coughs, researchers study molecular changes that can lead to easier transmission. This has been done in the lab with ferrets and in some cases the work has led to the creation of more dangerous strains of the virus.

Generally, the virus does not pass efficiently between people or ferrets, but Kawaoka and other researchers have found that the wild viruses could easily mutate into a strain that could transmit between mammals by sneezes or coughs. A study conducted by Ron Fouchier, a flu researcher at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, prior to the moratorium found that only five mutations in the H5N1 virus would create this more dangerous strain. At least two of the mutations have already been found in natural viruses, said Fouchier.

“The research is clearly of importance to public health,” said Fouchier. “With the knowledge of these mutations, we can do better surveillance.” If they start popping up in nature, “then countries should eradicate those outbreaks with a strict sense of urgency,” Fouchier added.

The work will also help scientists better evaluate antiviral drugs and vaccines, Fouchier said. Currently, such treatments are tested on either seasonal flu virus or ordinary H5N1, but these viruses behave differently in ferrets than the more transmissible strain.

Such testing is conducted in facilities with specialized air filtration and air-flow systems that require scientists to work in sealed “space suits.”

“We can conduct these experiments safely,” said Kawaoka. “There can never be zero risk, but the risk can be minimized and managed.”

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