Scientists Restart Work on Deadly Engineered Avian Flu

By Jamie Condliffe on at

In January 2012 scientists around the world halted research on engineered avian flu viruses over concerns that the work was too dangerous. Now, those scientists are taking to labs once more to continue their work.

What was initially a 60-day halt to research turned into a year-long battle for the scientists, who have had to lobby hard to, in their own words, "describe the measures in place to minimize possible risks, and to enable organisations and governments around the world to review their policies (for example, on biosafety, biosecurity, oversight and communication) regarding these experiments". Those words form part of a letter signed by 40 academics, published in Nature, which states their intention to bring the moratorium to a close.

While the scientists may have won over the powers-that-be in some countries—including parts of the EU, Canada, and China—many remain unsure if the research is safe. Understandably, given the results of the experiments that brought about the halt in research:

In his Netherlands laboratory, virologist Ron Fouchier was experimenting with the avian flu virus to see how it could become even more virulent. (Red flag.) His research involved spreading it throughout a population of ferrets, and he noticed that as the virus reproduced, it adapted to spread even faster. (RED FLAG.) Not worried about ferret flu? Previous research has shown that any strains of influenza that can pass between ferrets can also pass between humans. (RED FLAAAAAAAAAG.) Ten generations later, his efforts had created an airborne strain with the power could kill half the human population. (RED FUCKING FLAG, DUDE!)

Included in the list of countries still unsure about the future of engineered avian flu research is the US. The scientists behind the research, writing in Nature, explain:

"Scientists should not restart their work in countries where, as yet, no decision has been reached on the conditions for H5N1 virus transmission research. At this time, this includes the United States and US-funded research conducted in other countries. Scientists should never conduct this type of research without the appropriate facilities, oversight and all necessary approvals."

Of recent time it's difficult to remember an avenue of scientific research that has garnered as much public scrutiny. The lifting of the research moratorium surely represents a success for scientific freedom—but this is a complex and thorny issue, so its understandable that some countries are taking their time when it comes to making a decision. Which decision is actually correct, of course, remains to be seen. [Nature via Guardian]

Image by James Thew/Shutterstock