Surprising Twist in Debate Over Lab-Made H5N1
For the past several months, the media, the public, scientific groups, and a key U.S. government advisory panel on biosecurity have wrestled with how to deal with two unpublished studies they thought described the creation of a bird flu virus capable of triggering an influenza pandemic with the potential to kill millions of people. The New York Times even billed it as a “doomsday virus.” But now, a researcher who created one of the H5N1 mutants and a leading U.S. health official say the threat has been blown out of proportion, offering what they said were clarifications and “new data” to better gauge the risk it presents. Contrary to widespread reports, the researcher, Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, revealed that the virus made in his lab does not kill ferrets infected by the aerosol route. And it is more difficult to transmit the virus than Fouchier previously described.
These revelations promise to influence—although certainly not end—a contentious debate about whether to publish details about this virus and a second, related one that’s less virulent. The wild-type H5N1 virus has decimated chicken flocks across Asia but has caused confirmed cases of disease in only about 600 humans, as it rarely spreads from person to person. Publishing the exact mutations the virus needs in order to spread among mammals could guide research on defensive measures and help derail an emerging pandemic, but many fear that the knowledge could help bioterrorists start one. To date, this debate has taken place largely in an information vacuum. Only a select group of people outside the two research groups involved have read drafts of papers describing the work, one of which was submitted to Science and the other to Nature. On 29 February, Fouchier attempted to partially fill that vacuum by offering glimpses of his group’s data at a public meeting held by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) in Washington, D.C. “There are a lot of misperceptions about what you can and cannot conclude from these studies,” Fouchier said at a panel discussion on the topic.
Fouchier sparked the controversy in September 2011 when he revealed at an influenza conference in Malta that his lab had engineered H5N1 to transmit readily in mammals for the first time. Fouchier’s group used the popular ferret model, and as reported in the conference newspaper, The Influenza Times, a mere five mutations made the virus transmissible. “This is very bad news, indeed,” said Fouchier in The Influenza Times account of his presentation. “This virus is airborne and as efficiently transmitted as the seasonal virus.” He made similar statements to Science in November, calling the mutant “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.”
In December, the U.S. government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended that the researchers and the journals redact key information from the papers. The diverse panel—which includes scientists from several disciplines, veterinarians, and biosecurity experts—also questioned whether the teams should have used more stringent biocontainment measures to safeguard against these viruses escaping from the lab. An uproar followed. Some said the experiments never should have been performed. Fouchier and the researcher who led the second team, Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo, criticized the call for redaction and the attempts to control the free flow of scientific communication, as did many other scientists. Kawaoka also stressed in a Nature comment in January 2012 that his mutant did not kill ferrets and was no more dangerous than the strain that caused the relatively mild 2009 pandemic.
But the researchers and the journals agreed to follow NSABB’s recommendation, and the influenza community called for a voluntary 2-month moratorium on research with such mutant viruses. Then in February, an expert group consisting mainly of influenza researchers met with Fouchier and Kawaoka for 2 days at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva and came to a conclusion that directly contradicted that of NSABB: Redaction did not make sense, they said, for both scientific and practical reasons.