Bird flu researchers stand down for 60 days

The world's top flu virologists have vowed to stop working on any experiments that could lead to the H5N1 bird flu virus becoming more transmissible – at least, for the next 60 days. It's a good gesture, but whether 60 days is enough to really deal with the Pandora's box they have opened is another matter.

As we reported in September, two labs – in the Netherlands and the US – finally breached the genetic barrier that stopped H5N1 bird flu from spreading easily through the air between mammals – in this case, ferrets, who get flu a lot like we do.

H5N1 hasn't done that in nature, which is what stops it from going pandemic in mammals like us. Frighteningly, the virus was just as deadly in ferrets after it became easy to catch. Now, H5N1 kills around half the humans who catch it. If H5N1 stayed that lethal and became as easy to catch as ordinary flu – as the ferret virus did – civilisation might not survive the resulting pandemic.

The journals and the research and biosafety community in the US are now debating how to publish that research, which details to withhold about what made the virus transmissible (just in case a bioterrorist is interested), and paradoxically, how to make those details available to virologists who must now look for the mutations in H5N1 in the wild. Virologists must also, as Ron Fouchier of the Dutch lab noted yesterday, ensure that they don't inadvertently create H5N1 viruses with those mutations in low-containment labs. He checked, and apparently someone had a virus with four of the five mutations required. Eek.

So virologists have pledged to stop for a bit while they decide, I hope, who will do what and with what safety precautions. Sixty days doesn't seem very long for that. Certainly not long enough to bring all the scientists who might do this work into an organisation where peer pressure and careful deliberation will establish norms and guidelines that will, with luck, prevent anyone from releasing a killer.

Previous efforts at corralling researchers for the greater good have taken more than just two months. In 1973 US researchers started to worry that their experiments putting novel combinations of DNA into living bacteria might inadvertently create a monster. In July 1974, Paul Berg of Stanford University – who went on to win a Nobel in 1980 – called on the world's scientists to observe a moratorium on all such work until they could discuss what safety guidelines were needed.


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