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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

H5N1 Research Moratorium

Air Date: Week of

A colorized image shows H5N1 avian flu strain viruses (gold) grown in dog kidney cells (green). (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, UAF Center for Distance Education)

Scientists studying H5N1, or the bird flu, recently discovered something big: a strain of the virus that can spread through the air between animals. Dr. Michael Olsterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, tells host Bruce Gellerman why his concerns for biosafety and security led him to recommend limiting the publication of this new research.


GELLERMAN: Last year’s medical thriller – the movie: Contagion -- imagined a deadly flu pandemic and the social breakdown that followed:

[CLIP FROM CONTAGION MOVIE: “Is there any way someone could weaponize the bird flu, is that what we’re looking at here?”/ “Someone doesn’t have to weaponize the bird flu….the birds are doing that.”]

GELLERMAN: The hard-to-control, easily transmitted flu in the movie was the stuff of fiction but teams of scientists in Wisconsin and the Netherlands have come close to making the scenario a distinct possibility.

Michael Osterholm. (Photo: CIDRAP)

The researchers recently announced they had manipulated the genes in the deadly strain of bird flu known as H5 N1 so the virus could spread in the air from lab ferret to lab ferret. As news of their discovery spread, so did fears that terrorists could use the knowledge to make airborne, human transmission possible.

The concerns led the National Science Advisory Board for Bio-Security to recommend that researchers limit the publication of their new results and stop their work until there is an international agreement on how to proceed. Dr. Michael Osterholm is a member of the Bio-Security Board and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

OSTERHOLM: What we are strongly urging is that the critical information in terms of methods and results that could make it possible for someone else to easily do this work, should not be published. I think that the overall results, the implications for those results, and where we go from here are very critical pieces of information that should be made public.

In addition, we have discussed the idea that there will clearly be those that will have a need to know this information. Various types of researchers that are going to specifically be working on vaccines or looking at the effectiveness of antivirals, they too should have the work. What we’re really objecting to is just the widespread, uncontrolled, unfettered release of this information.

GELLERMAN: How dangerous is the possibility of having a bird flu virus that can be transmitted from person to person?

OSTERHOLM: Again, we have to emphasize we don't know that any of the viruses created in this research setting are highly dangerous. But there sure is that possibility. And when we think about that, we have to act in a way that says we cannot afford to make a mistake at all - do no harm.

If this virus does readily transmit between humans, just as it’s now doing between ferrets, which, to date have been the best animal model we have for predicting its performance or behavior in humans, and if in fact, this virus is as lethal in humans as it is in the ferrets, this would be as serious an infectious disease encounter that the human population has ever known. You can take all other areas of influenza, you can take small pox, you take SARS, you can take the plague back to the Medieval Ages, and this one could really be a very, very serious challenge. So we cannot afford to be even a little bit wrong here.

GELLERMAN: Isn’t science based on the open and free flow of knowledge? Doesn’t this change all that?

OSTERHOLM: Science is in fact based on information being shared. In this case, what we have to do is weigh the risks and the benefits. We looked at what are the benefits of this information basically being released unfettered in a way that anyone and everyone could have access to it, versus what are the downsides of that happening. And we considered that very carefully in making our recommendation.

Remember that the Board has historically had a very strong position in favor of the free-flowing information of science. So for us to hit a threshold, where we believe that that was exceeded in terms of this work, that’s a strong statement about how significant we think this work is!

GELLERMAN: So, is there some knowledge that is so deadly that it must be kept secret?

OSTERHOLM: Well, I think in this case, absolutely! I mean, there’s a whole world of classified information that is not information about censorship meaning that no one should ever know it, but it’s about how do you share information in a way that those who have a need to know, know about it.

GELLERMAN: But how do you share scientific information and also keep it secret at the same time. I’m reminded of that old saying, you know, two people can keep a secret as long as one of them is dead.

OSTERHOLM: Well, in fact, we do have a model for that now. From the world of bio-terrorism and classified information, we do a lot of research involving biologic agents where there is information shared among those who have a need to know. So we do have models for this. Do we think that it’s perfect? No. Do we think that, in fact, it will be quite easy? No. But, do we think that the implications of this kind of information in the hands of someone who may use it for nefarious purposes is real and significant? Yes.

GELLERMAN: The researchers have agreed to a 60-day moratorium on their work.

OSTERHOLM: That is correct.

GELLERMAN: Is that going to help things?

OSTERHOLM: Well, I think at this point, it is a positive step forward. In other words, calling for a pause in this kind of work gives us some time to begin developing an international framework. We recognize the fact that how you share information with who and what kind of safeguards you put around that, also in addition, how you work with this agent safely in the laboratory - those are all huge questions and we believe we should be measuring twice, cutting once here. Meaning that we can’t make mistakes. You can’t un-ring a bell. If we make a mistake, this virus either gets out accidentally or it is, in fact, developed by someone who has a nefarious purpose in mind, obviously we haven’t done our job.

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Osterholm, thank you so very much.

OSTERHOLM: Sure, thank you!

GELLERMAN: Dr. Michael Osterholm is director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.



University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy


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