Experts disagree on select agent status for H5N1 influenza

Public health professional groups and influenza experts are expressing differences of opinion on whether H5N1 influenza, also known as highly pathogenic avian influenza, should be classified as a "select agent."

Select agents require special precautions and permissions to be researched. Some say the step is warranted, others say it is unnecessary and would impede research efforts, according to CIDRAP News.

The physicians' organization the Infectious Diseases Society of America recently filed comments with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in support of placing H5N1 influenza into the select agent category. The American Society for Microbiology's comments to HHS are against the categorization. ASM argues that circulating forms of H5N1 viruses are not readily transmissible in humans.

"It is crucial that extensive biosafety and biosecurity measures be taken to prevent accidental release or an act of bioterrorism," IDSA President David A. Relman said, CIDRAP News reports.

Relman said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture already considers H5N1 a select agent because of the threat it poses to poultry.

Vaccine manufacturers have recommended that the attenuated strains of the virus should not be included as select agents because they are used to make vaccines. The change would slow development, which is potentially a major problem if an H5N1 strain were to become more transmissible.

HHS asked for public comments in October on whether special safety and containment measures are needed to research H5N1. The department also asked specifically for comments about research involving H5N1 strains with increased transmissibility in humans.