Caution Urged for Mutant H5N1 Avian Flu Work
Virus surveillance systems are ill-equipped to detect mutations arising in flu viruses. So, work on the viruses is unlikely to offer significant, immediate public-health benefits, some say
January 25, 2012
By Declan Butler of Nature magazine
Why would scientists deliberately create a form of the H5N1 avian influenza virus that is probably highly transmissible in humans? In the growing debate about research that has done precisely that, a key question is whether the public-health benefits of the work outweigh the risks of a potential pandemic if the virus escaped from the lab.
For the scientists who have created the mutated strains of the H5N1 virus, the justifications are clear. Surveillance of flu viruses could, they argue, allow health organizations to monitor birds and other animals for the mutations that would provide an early warning of a pandemic and enable authorities to act quickly to contain the virus.
That claim is meeting with skepticism, however. More than a dozen flu experts contacted by Nature say they believe that the work opens up important vistas in basic research, and that it sends a valuable warning about the potential for the virus to spark a human pandemic. But they caution that virus surveillance systems are ill-equipped to detect such mutations arising in flu viruses. As such, work on the viruses is unlikely to offer significant, immediate public-health benefits, they say.
That tips the balance of risk-benefit assessment in favor of a cautious approach, says Michael Osterholm, who heads the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis, and who is a member of the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB).http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=caution-urged-for-mutant-h5n1