Friday, January 20, 2012

Short Sharp Science - Bird flu researchers stand down for 60 days

Debora MacKenzie, contributor
Computer artwork of the bird flu virus (Image: PASIEKA/SPL/Getty)

The world's top flu virologists have vowed to stop working on any experiments that could lead to the H5N1 bird flu virus becoming more transmissible – at least, for the next 60 days. It's a good gesture, but whether 60 days is enough to really deal with the Pandora's box they have opened is another matter.
As we reported in September, two labs – in the Netherlands and the US – finally breached the genetic barrier that stopped H5N1 bird flu from spreading easily through the air between mammals – in this case, ferrets, who get flu a lot like we do.
H5N1 hasn't done that in nature, which is what stops it from going pandemic in mammals like us. Frighteningly, the virus was just as deadly in ferrets after it became easy to catch. Now, H5N1 kills around half the humans who catch it. If H5N1 stayed that lethal and became as easy to catch as ordinary flu – as the ferret virus did – civilisation might not survive the resulting pandemic.
The journals and the research and biosafety community in the US are now debating how to publish that research, which details to withhold about what made the virus transmissible (just in case a bioterrorist is interested), and paradoxically, how to make those details available to virologists who must now look for the mutations in H5N1 in the wild. Virologists must also, as Ron Fouchier of the Dutch lab noted yesterday, ensure that they don't inadvertently create H5N1 viruses with those mutations in low-containment labs. He checked, and apparently someone had a virus with four of the five mutations required. Eek.
So virologists have pledged to stop for a bit while they decide, I hope, who will do what and with what safety precautions. Sixty days doesn't seem very long for that. Certainly not long enough to bring all the scientists who might do this work into an organisation where peer pressure and careful deliberation will establish norms and guidelines that will, with luck, prevent anyone from releasing a killer.
Previous efforts at corralling researchers for the greater good have taken more than just two months. In 1973 US researchers started to worry that their experiments putting novel combinations of DNA into living bacteria might inadvertently create a monster. In July 1974, Paul Berg of Stanford University – who went on to win a Nobel in 1980 – called on the world's scientists to observe a moratorium on all such work until they could discuss what safety guidelines were needed.
There was "widespread consternation" but "the moratorium was universally observed", Berg later recalled. After eight months, DNA scientists met at the seaside town of Asilomar, California, and set up restrictions on handling recombinant organisms that formed the basis for modern biotechnology. Over the next few months, work on recombinant DNA gradually resumed.
Gregory Petsko of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, has observed that it was easy, then, to get everyone doing the work into a room. Today, I'm sure it was quite a feat just getting all the top flu researchers to agree on the moratorium and its wording. If all the people on today's statement were in a plane crash, top-of-the-line flu research would largely shut down for a bit.
But the second string labs would pick it up. That's why it's important that the big cats are calling time out.
Of course, it is also important that they do eventually resume the work. As they say, "more research is needed to determine how influenza viruses in nature become human pandemic threats, so that they can be contained".
But as Petsko also notes, Asilomar worked because the scientists themselves drew up the safety guidelines for the work that followed – and those evolved as the science progressed. That is what we need now. It will take longer than 60 days to arrange a real Asilomar for the world's virologists.
In 60 days maybe you can reassure the public – and that seems to be what this is about. In today's statement the researchers "recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks".
Explain. They need to do way more than explain, frankly. This smacks to me of scientists feeling that all is well, and they must simply take time to explain to uninformed people, who may otherwise cause a fuss, why they should not be worried.
That's not good enough. They need to convince people – including those who are concerned with overseeing biosafety – that they really are taking the best measures they can to reduce the risk while taking the research forward as needed. They need to set up a global consulting mechanism for the world's flu virologists to ensure that the rules are understood, applied and refined. They need an organisational structure that can reach scientific consensus on risks and remedies, and then take that consensus to the governments that enforce safety rules and prepare for pandemics – perhaps a structure similar to what the climate scientists have organised.

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