Flu research moratorium important, but somewhat problematic

Many scientists agreed with the decision to implement a moratorium on research designed to find how a nasty strain of bird flu is transmitted and how it might more easily spread.

The University of Georgia’s Ralph Tripp was among the more than 30 scientists who backed off in January on researching the spread of the H5N1 influenza virus.

But Tripp now believes their efforts to tease out the secrets of bird flu should resume.

“I think we have to recognize that important research requires important steps and measures,” said Tripp, whose research is aimed at developing vaccines against flu and other viruses that can be transmitted through the air.

The H5N1 virus has been around for years and has killed millions of chickens and other birds, but is not easily transmitted to, or between, humans.

Viruses like H5N1 are prone to mutate, however, and scientists like Tripp are trying to find out just how easily it might change itself into a form that could become a greater threat to people.

The moratorium originally was planned to last about two months, but has since been extended indefinitely.

Tripp and others signed on to the temporary halt after a federal biosecurity panel asked two teams of virus researchers to hold off on research that showed how the bird flu virus might mutate into a form that could easily infect humans.

Releasing the information might encourage others to begin similar research, which could increase the chances of a deadly, artificially created form of the virus being accidentally released outside a laboratory, or terrorists could use the knowledge to create a killer version of bird flu, some on the panel feared.

Once panel members and other federal science administrators understood the high-security conditions in which the two teams conducted their research, fears eased, and their research was finally published in two separate publications, one in May and one last week.

“I don’t think it had any real immediate bioterror threat. You need a really sophisticated lab,” said Andreas Handel, a UGA scientist who does computer modeling of infectious disease dynamics.

In the end, the research papers were more about how to stop a massive outbreak of bird flu in humans than they were about starting one. But they did describe how the virus might change into a form that could infect humans.

“I think everyone knew it would be possible in principle. This kind of describes how it can happen. There’s still a whole lot we don’t know,” Handel said.

“I don’t think it’s bad to have a moratorium,” Tripp said. “The moratorium really does two things, It allows public opinion to be addressed appropriately, and to see if there are issues we should consider.”
But there is a bigger question for scientists in the debate, Tripp said.

“What makes it really interesting from a scientific point of view is the ability of someone to say we’re going to filter what science gets published,” he said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to what you consider to be responsible research.”

And according to Tripp and Handel, the H5N1 research, conducted in the right way, is not just responsible — it’s vital.

“It’s important to understand how those viruses can become more easily transmissible,” said Handel. And the recently published papers are big steps in understanding those processes, he said.

“It’s important basic science in my opinion,” he said.

In some ways, the problem the researchers are confronting is an old one with some new wrinkles, said Barry Bozeman, a professor of public policy in UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs.

“The trade-off between open knowledge and security is hardly a new one,” he said.

But what’s new in the H5N1 controversy is the claim that society ultimately will benefit from knowing how the virus could be changed so it could spread through the air.

And unlike issues related to the spread of nuclear technology years ago, when we worried about misuse by enemy governments, we now have to worry about terrorists using the knowledge, Bozeman said.

“A possible compromise is to publish a ‘masked article’ giving sufficient information to validate the research, along with assurances of peer reviewers, but leaving out details that would be a recipe for terrorists,” he said.

– Lee Shearer

Posted July 2, 2012.