- Published on Friday, 25 January 2013 16:03
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Scientists last night ended a voluntary ban on creating mutant forms of bird flu, despite warnings that an accidental release could kill millions of people.
Research into H5N1 transmission stopped a year ago amid fears information about how to create potentially dangerous viruses could be used for bioterrorism.
The self-imposed moratorium came after two teams independently discovered how to mutate the virus so that it could be transmitted through the air between humans.
Deadly: The H5N1 strain of bird flu can currently pass from birds to birds, and from birds to humans, but not between humans. When it does infect a human, it is usually fatal
However, other leading scientists condemned the decision to go ahead with the research, with one warning an 'accidental release could wipe out a significant portion of humanity.'
Forty of the world's leading flu researchers voluntarily halted investigations into the airborne transmission of the H5N1 avian flu strain last January, following public outrage over the work.
Announcing the decision to resume studies in a letter published in the journals Science and Nature last night, they said the work would only be carried out in the most secure sites in countries that agree it can go ahead.
That will allow work to start again in key laboratories in the Netherlands and elsewhere but not yet in the U.S or U.S.-funded research centres, pending further safety and security guidelines there.
Flu experts said they have recognised the fears over their risky studies of the pathogen and worked hard to calm them, and now it is time to push on.
They say the studies are essential for a deeper understanding of H5N1, which many fear could one day spark a lethal pandemic in humans.
'We want the world to be better prepared than we currently are when an H5N1 virus causes a pandemic,' said Yoshihiro Kawaoka of Tokyo University, a leading researcher on avian flu.
'We understand the risks associated with our research and we take every precaution to conduct H5N1 virus experiments safely.'
'Should we be trying to engineer in the laboratory a virus so dangerous that a release could wipe out a significant portion of humanity? I vote no'
He told reporters on a teleconference the research would boost efforts to develop global flu 'biosurveillance', early warning systems, as well as better flu drugs and vaccines.
But other scientific experts warned that the potential risks of going ahead with the research outweighed the possible benefits.
Former government chief scientist Professor Lord May told The Independent: 'As this research become more widely known and disseminated, there is the opportunity for evil people to pervert it.
'My other concern is the statistics of containment are not what they ought to be.'
Genetic engineering expert Sir Richard Roberts, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1993, said the decision had been 'made by a small group of self-interested scientists' and made 'a mockery of the concept of informed consent'.
'Should we be trying to engineer in the laboratory a virus so dangerous that an accidental release could wipe out a significant portion of humanity?' he asked. 'I vote no.'
In the open letter announcing the lifting of the ban, flu researchers from the U.S., China, Japan, Britain, the Netherlands, Canada, Hong Kong, Italy and Germany admitted their research was not without risks.
'However, because the risk exists in nature that an H5N1 virus capable of transmission in mammals may emerge, the benefits of this work outweigh the risks,' they added.
Wendy Barclay, a flu virologist at Imperial College London and one of the letter's signatories, said lifting the moratorium would lead to scientific discoveries that would have 'direct consequence for human and animal health'.
All research into H5N1 transmission was halted last January after teams at the University of Wisconsin and the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam made mutant forms that can be transmitted directly among mammals, meaning they could in theory also pass between people.
Currently, bird flu can be transmitted from birds to birds, and birds to humans, but not from humans to humans.
When it does pass from birds to humans, it is usually fatal. Scientists are concerned the same mutations needed to make it transmissible among mammals in a lab could one day happen in nature.
When news of the work emerged late in 2011, it prompted the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to call for the scientific papers about it to be censored to prevent details falling into the wrong hands.
The censorship call sparked a fierce debate about how far scientists should be allowed to go in manipulating infectious agents in the name of research.
Professor Barclay said this had been a 'knee-jerk response from certain quarters previously naive of this approach, expressing horror that scientists were brewing up deadly diseases.'
During the moratorium, the World Health Organisation recommended that scientists explain the biological and other security measures they use to contain the virus and make more effort to show why the research is so important.
'The laboratories have expanded on their containment and security system ... and I think the value of the results has been recognised,' said John McCauley, director of the WHO collaborating centre for flu research at Britain's National Institute for Medical Research.
Ron Fouchier, from the Rotterdam lab which led one of the studies, said his team would start fresh research on H5N1 viruses 'in the next few weeks'.
'We really need to understand how these viruses become airborne,' he told reporters in the teleconference, saying that was the primary goal of the work.