How can scientists safely conduct avian flu research if the results could potentially threaten, as well as save, millions of lives? In a series of commentaries appearing on Tuesday, October 9 in mBio®, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, prominent microbiologists and physicians argue the cases both for and against lifting a voluntary moratorium on experiments to enhance the ability of the H5N1 virus to move from mammal to mammal, so-called "gain-of-function" research, and discuss the level of biosecurity that would be appropriate for moving that research forward.
In January 2012, in response to the controversy caused by the unprecedented recommendation iof an advisory board to the government to redact methods sections of two research studies showing how genetic changes could make H5N1 become transmissible between mammals, a group of influenza researchers agreed to a voluntary pause on any research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals. Despite both articles eventually being published in full in May and June 2012, the research moratorium remains in place.
"The scientific community and the greater society that it serves are currently engaged in a vigorous debate on whether and how to carry out experiments that could provide essential information for preparedness against a pandemic of avian influenza. To foster discussion and to provide a venue to record the arguments for or against this moratorium, mBio® has commissioned a series of views from experts in the field," write Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, editor-in-chief of mBio®; and Thomas Shenk of Princeton University, Chair of the ASM Publications Board, in an introductory editorial.
Enhancing and analyzing the transmissibility of the H5N1 virus could, on the one hand, provide insights that could help prevent or treat a future outbreak of H5N1 , or, on the other hand, it may provide a roadmap for a "bad actor" to deliberately bring about an influenza pandemic or lead to an inadvertent release of a virus with enhanced transmissibility.
Authors of the commentaries are prominent scientists, including:
"This is a historic time in science," says Casadevall. mBio® has solicited the views of experts in the field, he says, in order to provide a venue for recording the arguments for and against continuing H5N1 gain-of-function research. "Society is asking for a pause of research that is perhaps the best defense against pandemics because of concern about both biosafety and biosecurity." With the research moratorium continuing well past the 60-days originally planned, it is time these conflicting views were aired in a public forum, he says.
mBio® is an open access online journal published by the American Society for Microbiology to make microbiology research broadly accessible. The focus of the journal is on rapid publication of cutting-edge research spanning the entire spectrum of microbiology and related fields. It can be found online at http://mBio.asm.org.
The American Society for Microbiology is the largest single life science society, composed of over 39,000 scientists and health professionals. ASM's mission is to advance the microbiological sciences as a vehicle for understanding life processes and to apply and communicate this knowledge for the improvement of health and environmental and economic well-being worldwide.
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