Debate rages on biocontainment of transmissible H5N1

Four papers published in mBio on Tuesday offer multiple perspectives about the biocontainment facilities that should be used by researchers to work with bird flu viruses that can transmit in mammals.

Critics of moving such work to a biosafety level 4 lab said that by moving all research on mammal-transmitting H5N1 influenza to a more secure lab, there will be major experimental work that cannot be accomplished, Science reports.

"Critical experimental work will not be done simply because BSL-4 facilities are few in number and already engaged in research with numerous other pathogens," Arturo Casadevall, an mBio editor and a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, said, according to Science.

Michael Imperiale, a researcher at the University of Michigan Medical School, co-authored an article that urges higher containment, but notes that as more information comes in later the biocontainment level could be changed.

"It is almost hard to believe today that the cloning of the herpes simplex virus thymidine kinase gene in 1979 was carried out at BSL4 (or P4, as it was then known) containment," Imperiale said, according to Science. "This experiment was originally judged to be high risk, but over time we came to understand that it is not: today, the same work would be performed at BSL-1 containment."

Lisa Murillo, a researcher with the Theoretical Biology and Biophysics Group, said that while the presumed case-fatality rate of H5N1 may be overestimated due to subclinical cases that go undetected, it's better to be safe than sorry.

"It would be beneficial to err on the side of caution," Murillo said, according to Science.