Let’s talk about it…

By Jomana Musmar
Ms. Musmar is a PhD student in the Biodefense program at George Mason.

In a letter published on January 23, 2013, in Nature and Science, forty scientists announced an end to the self-imposed moratorium on research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza transmission. The moratorium was first triggered by the controversial publication of two H5N1 experiments in 2011.  In their letter, the scientists provide two major conclusions: that the aims of the moratorium have been reached, and that the benefits of conducting research on H5N1 outweigh the risks. They emphasize that scientists have a public health responsibility to conduct life-saving research, and that they are fully aware of the high risks involved in its potential misuse.  They also highlight that the moratorium helped foster robust global dialogue on the benefits and existing efforts to secure this research, in addition to the formal review of international policies.

Two such policies have been recently released by the US government (both available at http://www.phe.gov/s3/dualuse/Pages/default.aspx). The first is a White House proposed policy-update aimed at maximizing the benefits of life sciences research. The other is a US Department of Health and Human Services draft framework guiding funding decisions for conducting H5N1 research. The first of seven criteria in the draft framework to determine funding is that “the virus anticipated to be generated could be produced through a natural evolutionary process.”  This criterion echoes the final key point in the scientist’s letter in support of their conclusion–that the risks of an emerging H5N1 capable of mammalian transmission already exist in nature.

Although some may argue that the year-long moratorium has impeded the advancement of science and research related to influenza, I believe it has provided several benefits: (1) An opportunity for scientists to publicly voice their opinions and debate the topic on a global scale; (2) a chance for decision-makers to renew efforts at globally standardizing frameworks and guidelines related to research that present international security concerns; and (3) an increase in awareness on the public health benefits and security concerns of research in the life sciences.

In conclusion, the debate on the risks versus the benefits of controversial life science research is necessary to ensure that all stakeholders are participating in open dialogue, and that the frameworks drafted to help guide this sort of research are nimble enough to keep up with the pace of scientific advancements.

2 thoughts on “Let’s talk about it…

  1. In the article “H5N1 virus: Transmission studies resume for avian flu” that’s published in Nature [doi:10.1038/nature11858], the author’s say “We consider biosafety level 3 conditions with the considerable enhancements (BSL-3+) as outlined ……………….some countries may require BSL-4 conditions in accordance with applicable standards (such as Canada).

    Why isn’t everyone having the same level of biosafety platform, this concern’s me? I am presently trying to understand the different policies across the borders for BSL3 and BSL4. During my search, I remember reading lines from blogs or may be some random webpages, that in some countries the laboratory personal who works in the environment are not even aware which biosafety level they are working.

    World Health Organization has described the points under “Guidance for adoption of appropriate risk control measures to conduct safe research on H5N1 transmission”. One of the very first considerations is

    “Facilities wishing to work with the laboratory-modified H5N1 should critically evaluate the considerable personal and institutional responsibilities inherent in manipulating influenza viruses with pandemic potential that are not presently circulating in nature”

    Critically evaluate the personal, this is very important not only for H5N1 research but for any high risk group research. Who is going to monitor and evaluate these KEY PERSONAL’s experience, qualifications, background etc. Are there any unified global scientific community going to do this?
    I definitely understand every country has their own standard and have different security systems in place to handle this. But, the growing number of BSL4 containment facilities across the globe and the funding for hiring high skilled experts are seems to be an important criterion towards this type of research. Speaking to myself , I strongly think these research will be definitely be beneficial towards mankind , but at the same time, I feel there should be one global BIOSAFETY level that everyone adheres in this particular research.
    Vinod

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  2. Agreed, especially with recent news that the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has established its first Bio-Safety Level-4 (BSL-4) laboratory [named Pune] in New Delhi, see: http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=93017
    “This facility is an expansion of current work going in NIV [National Institute of Virology], Pune and would be tremendously useful in investigation outbreak of highly infectious diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Avian and pandemic Swine Influenza, Nipah virus, Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever virus and Kyasanur forest disease virus which created fear and affected at large our country. It will also deal with other highly infectious pathogens emerging in the country in future.”

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