We’d like to hear your thoughts on the following turn of events.
After months of debate about the prudence of publishing two studies on mutant strains of H5N1, one study has appeared in its entirety and the other seems close on its heels.
In a study published online May 2 by Nature, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and colleagues discussed their creation of a genetically enhanced H5N1 virus capable of being transmitted through the air between ferrets. Ron A. M. Fouchier, PhD, of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and colleagues discussed their creation of another such virus in a study that is in press with the journal Science.
Both research teams used genetic engineering to investigate the possibility that H5N1—which, at present, infects people primary through their direct contact with infected birds—could evolve the ability to be transmitted easily between humans. Kawaoka and colleagues combined elements of H5N1 and H1N1 and found that, after acquiring four mutations, the resulting virus could spread between ferrets in adjacent cages. The researchers noted that the new virus did not kill any ferrets and that they do not know whether the four mutations would render naturally occurring H5N1 transmittable. “Nevertheless, as H5N1 viruses continue to evolve and infect humans, receptor-binding variants of H5N1 viruses with pandemic potential, including avian-human reassortment viruses as tested here, may emerge,” they said.
Many commentators have expressed concern that the present research may itself increase the possibility of a pandemic, as transmittable H5N1 viruses might be used as biological weapons. In December 2011, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) took the unprecedented step of asking the Kawaoka and Fouchier teams not to publish their findings without redacting some details (see “Avian Flu Reports Raise Concern Among Scientists and US Health Officials”). In response, key investigators announced January 20 that they would cease research on mammal-to-mammal H5N1 transmission during a 60-day moratorium (see “H5N1 Research Debated During 60-Day Moratorium”).
The WHO, however, recommended February 17 that both studies be published in full following the development of a communications plan to increase public awareness and a review of biosecurity issues. The NSABB then reconsidered its earlier recommendation, with its members voting unanimously for publication of the Kawaoka study and 12-to-six for publication of the Fouchier study. On March 30, the NSABB publically recommended full publication of both studies.
Readers are invited to share their perspectives on this issue. Do you view the possibility of naturally evolving H5N1 as a dire threat to world health? If so, is the world health community taking appropriate steps to address it? Does undertaking and publishing research on mutant H5N1 pose a threat in and of itself?