The Bird Flu Experiments
Published: January 26, 2013
Scientists who had stopped research during the past year on a newly created bird flu virus because of safety and terrorism concerns have announced plans to resume their work. We wish we could be as sanguine as they are that all the earlier concerns have been dealt with.
The concerns arose after two research groups, one in the Netherlands and one in Wisconsin, genetically altered a bird flu virus, which seldom infects humans but is lethal when it does. Five to nine genetic mutations in the Dutch experiment allowed the bird flu virus to spread by coughs and sneezes among ferrets, a laboratory model for what might happen in humans.
The scientists published their first papers last year in two leading journals, Science and Nature, after agreeing to a voluntary moratorium on further research until governments and research organizations could decide on ground rules to protect the public.
Now, they say, the work can resume in countries that have set conditions to ensure safety and security. That will not help the Wisconsin researchers, whose work was financed by the National Institutes of Health, which has not yet issued guidelines. But it may benefit the Dutch team, whose work was also financed by the N.I.H. but which believes it can use money from other sources to restart its studies.
Critics of the research had focused initially on whether terrorists might steal the virus or use the publications as a blueprint to make their own lethal strain. Later the emphasis shifted to safety — the risk that the virus might escape from a laboratory or that inept imitators might unwittingly unleash an epidemic.
The researchers claim that the benefits of the research — greater understanding of how flu viruses adapt to mammals and advance warning as to whether bird flu is close to becoming transmissible through the air — outweigh what they consider small risks in such experiments.
But as an editorial in Nature observed, “an independent risk-benefit analysis” of such research “is still lacking.” The editorial warned, wisely, “The potential risks of the work demand exceptional precautions in any future research.”
A version of this editorial appeared in print on January 27, 2013, on page SR10 of the New York edition with the headline: The Bird Flu Experiments.