Scientists No Longer Banned from Researching Deadly Mutant Bird Flu

It was around this time last year when two teams of scientists from the U.S. and the Netherlands submitted papers for publication in Science and Nature describing how the H5N1 virus could be converted into a human-contagious form. All that was required were a pair of crafty genetic manipulations — and voila — instant pandemic. This revelation — and the very nature of the work — rocked the scientific community, who quickly set up a voluntary ban on further research. But now, a year later, that moratorium has been lifted and research can once again continue.

And indeed, scientists and the general public had good reason to be worried. This virus is a total bitch — a flu that kills nearly half of those it infects. Should the virus accidentally escape the lab, or be co-opted into a weapon by bioterrorists, it would create an unprecedented human catastrophe.

Scientists No Longer Banned from Researching Deadly Mutant Bird Flu

Under normal circumstances, however, the virus in its "natural" form cannot jump from birds to humans. Yet, as the research clearly showed, it's only a few mutations away from figuring this out on its own — with or without human help. It may only be a matter of time before the flu reconfigures itself and enters into the human population.

This is precisely why scientists want to resume the research; they don't want to be caught with their pants down if and when a pandemic strikes. The ultimate goal, aside from learning more about the virus and how it can evolve into dangerous strains, is to develop possible countermeasures, including immunizations and treatments.

For the past year, scientists, regulators and security experts have been working on a host of safety protocols to make sure an accident won't happen. Satisfied with what they came up with, Nature published a letter signed by 40 scientists saying that the pause had been useful in that it allowed them the time to communicate the public health benefits of the research, and how to minimise the risks.

The Guardian tells us more:

"There is probably not a scientific issue in recent times that has not been so widely thrown out for public consultation as this one," said Wendy Barclay, an influenza virologist at Imperial College London and a signatory to the letter. "The information learned from the two publications that finally made it into Nature and Science last year has been processed by the influenza community and has been hugely informative, not only for understanding the risks from H5N1 but also for illuminating how other subtypes of flu might jump species and even for assessing the zoonotic risks from other pathogens.

"The lifting of the moratorium will undoubtedly lead to more scientific revelations that will have direct consequence for human and animal health."

Interestingly, if not perplexingly, the idea of restricting who could access the research findings or publish a redacted or cut-down version of the results was rejected at meeting of journal editors, scientists, and U.S. and Dutch government officials in February 2012.

Top image: H5N1; "Making Mutant Flu" image via Nature News.