News / Africa

WHO: Balanced Approach for New Bird Flu Virus Strain

An Indonesian man helps  health officials cull poultry in the village where a 14-year-old boy died of bird flu Thursday Jan. 11, 2007,  on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia.  (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)
An Indonesian man helps health officials cull poultry in the village where a 14-year-old boy died of bird flu Thursday Jan. 11, 2007, on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)
Joe DeCapua

In 2011, scientists discovered they had created a highly contagious and deadly form of H5N1 – commonly called avian or bird flu. When the discovery was announced, debate erupted over whether the research was ethical and fears the new strain could be used as a bioterrorism weapon. Now, the World Health Organization has weighed in on the issue.

The WHO said it is deeply concerned about the potential consequences of the research that can make H5N1 more contagious among humans. At the same time, it said “studies conducted under appropriate conditions must continue” so critical knowledge can be gained on reducing the risks posed by the virus.

Assistant Director-General Dr. Keiji Fukuda said debate continues to swirl even though the findings have not yet been published or reviewed by the WHO.

“They’ve received an extraordinary amount of attention, I think, both in the popular press and the scientific world. A lot of the general issues raised by the papers are reasonably clear. For example, how do you weigh the risks of doing a certain kind of research versus the benefits? What are the right procedures and processes that need to be in place? These are fairly fundamental issues for science in general and public health,” he said.

Extra bit of fire

Laboratories in the Netherlands, Japan and the United States developed the new strain of avian flu.

“When you add the fact you’re dealing with the H5N1 virus, which is one of the most dangerous viruses around, then it adds that extra bit of fire to the discussion. And so, we’ve been following this and monitoring it pretty closely,” said Fukuda.

Over the years, millions of birds, including poultry, have been killed to prevent the spread of the flu.

“Now there’s a lot of influenza viruses which generally infect only birds and this is one of them. But this one stands out because in addition to infecting birds, it also has the ability to infect a wide range of mammals, including humans. Now it does not infect humans very often, but when it does this virus has consistently been about 50 to 60 percent lethal. So it has an extraordinarily high killing rate,” he said.

Fukuda described H5N1 as raising the biggest concern about causing a pandemic. He says that’s why the recent research has raised so much attention.

“While this particular situation is focusing a lot of attention on the risks of bioterrorism, dual use technology and those kinds of questions, which are important, we also want to make sure that we all take a balanced approach to this. So we have to make sure that research continues. We have to make sure that when research is done the risks to people are as minimum as possible,” he said.


In May 2011, all World Health Organization member states adopted the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework, or PIP for short. It’s a guide for sharing virus samples and resulting research benefits. In other words, if a virus with the potential for causing a pandemic is found in a poor country, PIP helps ensure that country benefits when a vaccine or treatment is developed. That was not always the case in the past. Some developing nations lost out because the vaccines or drugs were too expensive.

The WHO assistant director-general said such guidelines should be applied to research involving the new H5N1 strain.

“In the overall scheme of things, when you look at public health and how we’re hopefully better at protecting people, making sure that scientific research continues and addresses the critical issues out there (and) fills the gaps in knowledge is absolutely essential. If we don’t have that happen, then we’re always going to be behind the curve and we know that,” he said.

In the meantime, Fukuda said the natural forms of H5N1 continue to be found in a number of countries, such as Egypt and Indonesia. The new form of the virus is currently under the control of the researchers in a few laboratories. One scientist, who helped develop the new strain, says if H5N1 can be made more transmissible in the lab, it can also happen in nature.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs