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Back to the Bench: H5N1 Influenza

Researchers have ended their year-long moratorium on studying H5N1 influenza, known as bird flu, a letter from about 40 researchers jointly printed in Science and Nature say. The moratorium was put in place last January when an outcry erupted over the intentions to publish two papers describing how the introduction of certain mutations into the virus made it spread more easily among ferrets — a finding that could be put to nefarious use. In that time the researchers aimed to work with regulators, funders, and others to mitigate the risk of such dual-use research. Those papers were eventually published.

"We want to resume virus transmission studies because we believe this research is important to pandemic preparedness," says Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin and an author of one of the papers that sparked the moratorium, to the Los Angeles Times.

As the researchers lay out in their letter, such work can re-start in countries that have developed guidelines and oversight for the work. They add that they think that working in biosafety level 3 conditions with certain enhancement to be an appropriate precaution for such bird flu research, though they note that some countries, like Canada, may require more stringent standards.

"We fully acknowledge that this research — as with any work on infectious agents — is not without risks," the researchers write. "However, because the risk exists in nature that an H5N1 virus capable of transmission in mammals may emerge, the benefits of this work outweigh the risks."

The US has yet to come to a decision on policies regarding H5N1 research, though Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells the LA Times that a framework for funding such work should be ready "within a relatively short period of time — I hope measured in weeks."