Questions raised about safety precautions for H5N1 research

Experts are at odds this week when it came to what level of safety precautions should be used for research on H5N1 viruses that can spread in mammals.

The experts recommending biosafety level 4, the highest security precautions, said that while the extra protection may encumber research, it is worth it in view of the grave risks involved. Another expert said that downgrading to BSL-3 will not make the work any less safe, CIDRAP News reports.

"Overall, then, we believe that the newly derived H5N1 HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) virus should be handled at the highest biocontainment level, BSL4," Michael J. Imperiale and Michael G. Hanna, members of the Institutional Biosafety Committee at the University of Michigan, said, according to CIDRAP News.

The debate comes in the wake of the controversy over whether two studies involving lab-created H5N1 viruses that spread in ferrets via respiratory droplets should be edited to remove details or published in full. There have been concerns that bioterrorists could exploit the information in the studies.

Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, a researcher with the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute, made the case for using BSL-3 containment for research on the viruses that were developed in the studies.

"The use of BSL-4 containment would not decrease the risk of virus release any more than enhanced BSL-3 containment, but it would result in an unnecessary burden that would restrict research on H5N1 influenza transmission to a few facilities and considerably decrease the speed of research on this important pathogen," Garcia-Sastre said, according to CIDRAP News.

In an accompanying editorial, Arturo Casadevall, the editor-in-chief of mBio, noted pros and cons for using BSL-3 or BSL-4.

"No matter what choices are made regarding containment level, we urge that great consideration be given to protecting the influenza research enterprise, since increased knowledge is critical for the defense against future pandemics," Casadevall said, according to CIDRAP News.