Last winter, scientists at the University of Wisconsin and Erasmus University (Netherlands) shocked the world by announcing they had developed strains of H5N1 influenza that could easily pass between mammals (ferrets). In nature, H5N1 is extremely lethal (kills nearly 60% of its human cases), but it does not easily spread from person-to-person. Thus, biosafety concerns were raised over the possible release, accidental or intentional, of these new viruses.
In January 2012, an international panel of 39 influenza researchers agreed on a 6-month moratorium on all gain-of-function H5N1 research – classified as “dual-use research of concern” or DURC. This was followed over the summer by an indefinite continuation of the ban by the U.S. government until consensus emerges on how to proceed.
To advance this discussion, the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) journal mBio will publish a special issue of commentaries on the pros and cons of DURC from global experts in virology and public health.
ASM officials Arturo Casadevall and Thomas Shenk set the stage by discussing the major events that led to the moratorium.
Anthony Fauci, head of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reviews how the U.S. government plans to proceed.
Concerns over laboratory biocontainment are addressed by Professor W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection & Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
The authors of the controversial research, Ron A. M. Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, along with Adolfo García-Sastre, highlight the importance of DURC and why the moratorium should be lifted.
Public health experts Marc Lipsitch and Barry Bloom assess the probability of an accidental release from laboratories with advanced security.
Finally, Stanley Falkow, who attended the infamous 1975 Asilomar conference, provides historical context by comparing the current H5N1 moratorium to lessons learned from the moratorium on recombinant DNA technology.
Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health