H5N1 researchers volunteer to suspend testing for 60 days

WASHINGTON — Avian flu researchers have agreed to take a 60-day hiatus on testing an H5N1 influenza strain that recently had gained public attention, according to a letter published Friday in the journal Science.

The virus in question is being studied at both the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and possesses a haemagglutinin protein from highly pathogenic avian H5N1 influenza viruses that can become transmissible in ferrets. "This is critical information that advances our understanding of influenza transmission," the letter read. "However, more research is needed to determine how influenza 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. … 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."

The researchers are implementing the delay in research in an effort to give scientists from all nations an opportunity to prepare for an international debate among the scientific community. "We realize that organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the [H5N1 research]. To provide time for these discussions, we have agreed on a voluntary pause of 60 days on any research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals."

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