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Resumption of Bird Flu Research

A YEAR-LONG voluntary moratorium on certain types of bird flu (H5N1) research looks to be coming to a close. The moratorium sprang from public outcry over a scientific mutation of the bird flu virus that allowed it to spread through mammals. The virus normally transmits readily between birds through saliva, nasal droplets, and stool. It sometimes spreads from birds to humans who are in close contact with infected fowl. Infected humans have more than a 50 percent fatality rate with the virus, which is capable of quick mutation.

In a transmission study being done in part by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s (UWMadison) Influenza Research Institute, and in work by Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, the virus was mutated and spread between ferrets. “Ferrets are the best animal model for influenza because they’re respiratory tract is very similar to a human’s respiratory tract. And they also sneeze and cough like humans do. But again, it’s a model…. We can’t say for sure that that’s what would actually happen if that virus was in the human population,” says Rebecca Moritz, research compliance specialist at the UWMadison Office of Biological Safety.

The passing of the virus between mammals caused an outcry, prompting the leading researchers in the field to call for a voluntary break on the research. There were concerns that not all of the institutions doing this research would have the proper controls; the creation of a powerful virus that could spread through humans without proper controls could lead to disaster, including possible misuse or accidents. Advocates of restarting the research say it is essential in mitigating the effects of a future avian flu pandemic.

The research has undergone intense scrutiny since the break, and a letter calling for an end to the moratorium was signed by the scientists who initiated the halt and recently published in the journals Science and Nature.

As the letter states, there have been reports on the benefits of this research and how to mitigate the risks. In a report last year titled Working Safely with H5N1 Viruses, Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, codirector of the Global Health & Emerging Pathogens Institute at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, writes that “preventing the escape of viruses from the laboratory can be achieved by housing research activities in a facility equipped with interlocked rooms with negative pressure and high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtered air circulation and using the appropriate decontamination and/or sterilization practices for material leaving the facility.” He adds that air-purifying respirators will help prevent infection among humans and that the recommended practices correspond with a BSL-3 level lab (biosafety level 3; 4 is the most secure level lab).

However, the letter ending the moratorium did stipulate that “scientists should not restart their work in countries where, as yet, no decision has been reached on the conditions for H5N1 virus transmission research. At this time, this includes the United States and U.S.-funded research conducted in other countries.”

Since the letter came out, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States has released new guidelines on vetting this type of research. The new framework mandates that “any experiments have to go through a secondary review by [the U.S. Department of] Health and Human Services before the research can be done,” says

Moritz. She adds, “That is where we’re at right now. Dr. Kawaoka has to describe to the NIH exactly what he wants to do for certain experiments, they have to approve it, and then he can go ahead and do it.” The timeline on that approval is unclear, Moritz adds. Moritz says the new regulations are a step in the right direction. “I think it was a good step, because the second set of regulations that came out were…looking at transmission research itself, and everything that they laid out we feel was very fair and not overly burdensome at all, and they’re actually things that we’ve already had in place for a few years now anyway.” UW-Madison’s lab is a BSL-3 lab. The precautions the lab already had in place in addition to the ones mentioned earlier are a fluid decontamination system and a quarantine plan.