Bioterror fears suspend H5N1 research

You will all recall H5N1: the highly pathogenic subtype of the influenza A virus, commonly referred to as 'bird flu’ or 'avian influenza’. “The H5N1 virus subtype”, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “first infected humans in 1997 during a poultry outbreak in Hong Kong. Since its widespread re-emergence in 2003 and 2004, this avian virus has spread from Asia to Europe and Africa and has become entrenched in poultry, resulting in millions of poultry infections, several hundred human cases, and many human deaths.”

The WHO report goes on to stress the fact that H5N1 remains the influenza A virus subtype with the most pandemic potential, which makes recent news that research teams in the US and the Netherlands have developed an even more infectious form of the subtype all the more alarming. This new strain has so far only been tested on ferrets – a conventional model for human influenza – but has demonstrated an enhanced ability to transmit from one to another, leading scientists to suspect it capable of the same behaviour in humans – a quality that H5N1 has hitherto not demonstrated to any effect.

Notwithstanding the fact that this research has been carried out in secure facilities, there are fears that this new form of H5N1 may find its way in to the hands of terrorists, with disastrous and potentially legal consequences. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has called for selective censorship of the findings, whilst research by both teams has been suspended until the case is brought before an international scientific forum in roughly two months’ time.

This should be striking very loud alarm bells for all signatories to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) or those active within the discipline of dual-use research. It will be interesting to see how the scientific community responds to this challenge, as the early signs are not good. Many scientists have voiced strong opinions on the right to publish and many are making the case that censorship of this research should be permissible by way of an exception, broadly because the adverse publicity now makes it more likely that the results will be exploited.

The international forum will no doubt question the extent to which both research teams considered the ethics of their research prior to its undertaking, as well as the extent to which it fell within, or perhaps breached, articles of the BTWC. Both considerations are standard procedure in medical research and are encouraged by a convention that seeks to moderate the self-declaration and safety of medical findings, as well as prevent them from seriously endangering the public. It will be interesting to see if the fact that the research teams are located in different countries and jurisdictions will have any impact on the forum’s judgement, or if the articles of the international convention will prevail and dictate the outcome of their review.

Striking a balance between the dangers and benefits attendant on pathogen research and its publication – not to mention its dissemination within the public domain – is difficult, but essential. If a strong stance is not taken on this case it will be hard to see what good the BTWC has so far done. The research teams will really have to make their case before the scientific forum and assure international regulatory bodies of the safety of their findings and the integrity of their research governance if they are going to demonstrate the credibility of pursuing their research further.

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