Imperial College London

Suspended bird flu research resumes

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Professor Wendy Barclay conducting influenza research with a postgraduate student in her laboratory at St Mary's Campus

Professor Wendy Barclay conducting influenza research with a postgraduate student in her laboratory at St Mary's Campus

Professor Wendy Barclay has given us her reaction to the lifting of the moratorium on studying artificial strains of H5N1 influenza.

There have been over 500 human cases of H5N1 influenza since 2003, but so far the deadly virus has not proven infectious in humans. Researchers in the Netherlands and the US have created highly transmissible strains in the lab in an attempt to understand what mutations might enable it to pass between humans, but worries over the safety of these studies led to all such research being put on hold in January 2012. 

After a year of extensive discussions about how such research should be conducted, the moratorium was finally lifted last week. Professor Wendy Barclay, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, is a signatory on the letter in Nature announcing the resumption of this research. Here she explains why the work was suspended and why it will now continue.


"The moratorium on research with H5N1 highly pathogenic influenza viruses leading to increased transmissibility in mammals was put in place last year by an international collection of influenza virologists. The stimulus for this voluntary pause in research in one specific area was the revelation that two labs had actually generated recombinant viruses with increased transmissibility. Several other labs along with these two had been working in this area for some years, publishing and presenting their work openly, but only when efforts yielded up a positive result did anyone really notice. Then there was a knee jerk response from certain quarters previously naive of this approach, expressing horror that scientists were brewing up deadly diseases. It became clear that the public needed reassurance and justification about these experiments.

It became clear that the public needed reassurance and justification about these experiments.

– Professor Wendy Barclay

Chair in Influenza Virology

The original moratorium was supposed to last 60 days and during that time it was hoped that a wide body of people would get together to debate the merits of the work and also to ensure that such work, if conducted, would be done under the most appropriate containment. After all, inadvertent release of these genetically manipulated viruses might cause a devastating human outbreak. Inevitably, 60 days proved too short a time to debate this issue fully enough and now a whole year has passed. During that time, many meetings have been held both open and closed, many opinions have been expressed in closed halls but also in the public domain (including live webcasts and on line debates) and the safety measures for this type of work have been clarified. There is probably not a scientific issue in recent times that has not been so widely thrown out for public consultation as this one.

Now the scientists suggest it is time to move on, go back to the very safe bench they were working at, taking on board the comments of the past year which will undoubtedly have focused their minds on the key questions they hope now to address. H5N1 has not stood still during this year, but thankfully it has also not made any significant evolutionary jumps either. Evidence suggests the virus continues to drift antigenically especially in places like Egypt, but also that clinical management of patients caught early in the infection is improving their chances of survival. The information learned from the two publications that finally made it into Nature and Science last year has been processed by the influenza community and has been hugely informative, not only for understanding the risks from H5N1 but also for illuminating how other subtypes of flu might species jump and even for assessing the zoonotic risks from other pathogens. The lifting of the moratorium will undoubtedly lead to more scientific revelations that will have direct consequence for human and animal health."

Reporter

Sam Wong

Sam Wong
School of Professional Development

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