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.