Publication of Studies on Mutated Bird Flu Viruses Remains Controversial

Public health and research experts continue to debate the merits of publishing research on ferrets showing how to mutate an avian influenza virus so that it can be transmitted through inhalation potentially by humans. (Image: Eric Isselée/

Momentum continues to build for fully publishing 2 studies that describe specific mutations in the genome of the H5N1 avian influenza virus that allow the virus to readily spread in airborne droplets between ferrets, an animal that is often used to assess viral transmissibility among humans.

H5N1 avian influenza is highly lethal in birds and has killed some individuals, mostly among those who had close contact with infected birds. Researchers have expressed worry that if H5N1 acquired the ability to easily spread from person to person in aerosol droplets (via coughs or sneezes), this could trigger a worldwide pandemic.

The controversy began late last year when the 2 studies—1 conducted by researchers from Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and the other by investigators from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the University of Tokyo—were scheduled to be published in Science and Nature, respectively. But before publication, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which advises the National Institutes of Health on potentially risky biomedical research, recommended that researchers and these publishers omit certain details from the articles to prevent bioterrorists from using the information in developing mutated viral influenza strains that might cause a pandemic.

Both manuscripts have yet to be published in any form. The researchers, along with more than 3 dozen other influenza researchers, announced in late January a 60-day moratorium (to expire on March 20) on research involving new laboratory-modified H5N1 viruses to allow time to address public awareness and understanding of the research and to review biosafety and biosecurity issues. In addition to worries that such modified H5N1 strains could pose a terrorism threat, there is also concern that a pandemic could occur because of accidental release of these viruses from research laboratories.

On February 17, an international panel of public health and influenza experts, convened by the World Health Organization (WHO), called for full publication of the manuscripts, but only after extension of the moratorium. But today, at a special session of the American Society for Microbiology’s Biodefense and Emerging Diseases meeting, Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the NSABB, which did not endorse the international panel’s recommendations, will reconvene to consider new data that was presented by the authors of the manuscripts at the WHO meeting. NSABB officials at the special session said they could not comment on the new data or what the board may do with that information.

Ron A. M. Fouchier, PhD, lead researcher of the Netherlands study, downplayed the public health threat from his laboratory’s mutant H5N1 strain, noting that ferrets that inhaled the virus merely got sick; they died only when heavy doses of the virus were directly planted in the animals’ lungs. “The animals get a little bit of flu, but they do not drop dead,” he said.

Categories: Bioterrorism, Infectious Diseases, Public Health, Viral Infections, World Health