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.