Experts: Lifting H5N1 research ban could be dangerous

Stanley Plotkin

Leading scientists have denounced recent plans to lift the voluntary ban on H5N1 bird flu research for fear of releasing a highly transmissible strain into the environment.

The voluntary ban was the result of two controversial studies funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The studies were led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin – Madison and Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam. The moratorium was instituted in January, the Independent reports.

Stanley Plotkin, an authority on vaccines at the University of Pennsylvania, has urged the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to continue the voluntary ban on H5N1 research. Plotkin said that creating a more transmissible H5N1 strain would be like creating a more human-transmissible anthrax bacteria.

“History is full of incidents of escape of microorganisms from laboratories, and scientists are not always good at risk evaluation,” Plotkin said, according to the Independent.

Stanley Falkow and Paul Berg, two Stanford scientists, also oppose removing the ban on research into the H5N1 virus.

“Frankly, I don’t know who and under what circumstances the moratorium was declared,” Berg said, according to the Independent. “But once having announced it as being in effect, having the same people declare it undone without some public and clear scientific rationale is a bit ludicrous.”

Falkow said that scientists must exert social responsibility when considering a decision that could potentially end in disaster.

“I agree that the moratorium ought to be continued,” Falkow said, according to the Independent. “My reasoning is that the moratorium is essential until such time as there is a dispassionate international meeting to address the issues brought to the fore by the H5N1 ‘affair’. In my judgment there has been a lack of leadership by the scientific community in dealing with this issue. The majority of statements from scientific leaders recently were often self-serving remarks and communications to journals from either biased virologists or those promoting doom and gloom.”

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