Pause on Avian Flu Transmission Research
THE CONTINUOUS THREAT OF AN INFLUENZA PANDEMIC REPRESENTS ONE OF THE BIGGEST CHALlenges in public health. Infl uenza pandemics are known to be caused by viruses that evolve from animal reservoirs, such as in birds and pigs, and can acquire genetic changes that increase their ability to transmit in humans. Pandemic preparedness plans have been implemented worldwide to mitigate the impact of infl uenza pandemics. A major obstacle in preventing infl uenza pandemics is that little is known
... what makes an infl uenza virus transmissible in humans. As a consequence, the potential pandemic risk associated with the many different infl uenza viruses of animals cannot be assessed with any certainty. Recent research breakthroughs identifi ed specifi c determinants of transmission of H5N1 infl uenza viruses in ferrets. Responsible research on infl uenza virus transmission using different animal models is conducted by multiple laboratories in the world using the highest international standards of biosafety and biosecurity practices that effectively prevent the release of transmissible viruses from the laboratory. These standards are regulated and monitored closely by the relevant authorities. This statement is being made by the principal investigators of these laboratories. In two independent studies conducted in two leading infl uenza laboratories at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, investigators have proved that viruses possessing a hemagglutinin (HA) protein from highly pathogenic avian H5N1 infl uenza viruses can become transmissible in ferrets. This is critical information that advances our understanding of infl uenza transmission. However, more research is needed to determine how infl uenza viruses in nature become human pandemic threats, so that they can be contained before they acquire the ability to transmit from human to human, or so that appropriate countermeasures can be deployed if adaptation to humans occurs. Despite the positive public health benefi ts these studies sought to provide, a perceived fear that the ferret-transmissible H5 HA viruses may escape from the laboratories has generated intense public debate in the media on the benefi ts and potential harm of this type of research. We would like to assure the public that these experiments have been conducted with appropriate regulatory oversight in secure containment facilities by highly trained and responsible personnel to minimize any risk of accidental release. Whether the ferret-adapted infl uenza viruses have the ability to transmit from human to human cannot be tested. We recognize that we and the rest of the scientifi c community need to clearly explain the benefi ts of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks. We propose to do so in an international forum in which the scientifi c community comes together to discuss and debate these issues. We realize that organizations and governments around the world need time to fi nd the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work. To provide time for these discussions, we have agreed on a voluntary pause of 60 days on any research involving highly pathogenic avian infl uenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals. In addition, no experiments with live H5N1 or H5 HA reassortant viruses already shown to be transmissible in ferrets will be conducted during this time. We will continue to assess the transmissibility of H5N1 infl uenza viruses that emerge in nature and pose a continuing threat to human health.