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Few pathogens known to man are as dangerous as the H5N1 avian influenza virus. Of the 600 reported cases of people infected, almost 60 per cent have died. The virus is considered so dangerous in the UK and Canada that research can only be performed in the highest biosafety level laboratory, a so-called BSL-4 lab. If the virus were to become readily transmissible from one person to another (it is readily transmissible between birds but not humans) it could cause a catastrophic global pandemic that would decimate the world’s population.
The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was caused by a virus that killed less than 2 per cent of its victims, yet went on to kill 50m worldwide. A highly pathogenic H5N1 virus that was as easily transmitted between humans could kill hundreds of millions more.
This is why it is so important to maintain the moratorium on H5N1 research that involves dangerous experiments to see “what it would take” for the virus to become airborne – and therefore as transmissible from one person to another as the seasonal flu.
When the public learnt such experiments were taking place in December, there was such an uproar that researchers were forced to announce a temporary moratorium until the ethics and safety of such research could be reassessed by the international scientific community.
Most scientists believe that research of this kind pushes the limits of legitimate and responsible scientific inquiry. Advancing our understanding of how viruses are transmitted is important work. The more we know, the better we may be able to block transmission. However, it is a fallacy to consider every and any experiment fair game. Creating an agent more deadly than exists in nature falls into this category. In the nightmare scenario whereby a mutated H5N1 virus escapes from the lab and causes a pandemic, everyone involved – and the life sciences in general – will be blamed.
If it becomes “legitimate” to mutate a deadly virus we will see an explosion in this type of research. There are many more avian than human influenza viruses. If this controversial work is allowed to continue and more labs are going to be involved, the risk of an accidental release of a mutated H5N1 virus increases exponentially.
Accidents do happen. We need look no further than the re-emergence
of the H1N1 virus in 1977, after a 20-year hiatus. A group of US scientists investigating the 1977 outbreak concluded that it leaked out of a Russian lab that was working on a live-attenuated H1N1 virus vaccine.
Historical data are not encouraging, either. Between 1978 and 1999 there were more than 1,200 incidents in which people were infected from BSL-4 labs. Since 1999, lab workers have been killed by numerous microbes, including Ebola and the Sars respiratory virus.
Scientists have a moral responsibility to speak up and question the fundamental wisdom, the ethics and the social advisability of conducting such research. This includes questioning the scientific rationale for research of “dual-use concern”, even if that means taking on the powers that be or making themselves unpopular.
The moratorium on H5N1 research at the centre of the controversy should remain in place indefinitely until the international scientific community has had time to discuss whether this is responsible science. We are of the opinion that this is irresponsible research that should never have been undertaken and should not be resumed.
If it is considered vitally important, internationally agreed guidelines for such research should be put in place and a consensus developed as to the conditions
under which the research could be allowed to resume. In the meantime, there needs to be a wider, truly international discussion with experts from all fields of the life sciences, as well as public involvement, on the scientific, social and ethical advisability of pursuing biomedical research that aims to create potentially deadly agents – and on the consequences of succeeding.
Peter Hale is the founder of the Foundation for Vaccine Research, Washington, DC.
Simon Wain-Hobson is a professor in
the Department of Molecular Retrovirology, Institut Pasteur, Paris. Robert May is a professor in the, Department of Zoology, Oxford university