By Amanda Gardner
WEDNESDAY, Jan. 23 (HealthDay News) -- An international moratorium on bird flu research, instituted a year ago because of concerns that a mutated form of the virus could fall into the wrong hands, has been lifted.
In a letter published Jan. 23 in the journals Nature and Science, the 40 scientists who first agreed to halt any study of the H5N1 flu virus until safety guidelines were established now say that labs in countries that have since established such measures can resume their work.
However, the United States is not one of those countries, so any bird, or avian, flu research there is still on hold, the group said.
"It is believed that all of the conditions the moratorium was initially installed to meet have been met," Ron Fouchier, of the department of virology at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, said during a Wednesday news conference on the decision to lift the ban. "In our opinion, in those countries where research can be done safely, research should restart.
"The risk of this information in the manuscripts being misused by malicious people would be very, very small, if not negligible," Fouchier added.
Fouchier said his lab would not be restarting experiments immediately, but that "certainly it will not take months to start. Probably in the next few weeks."
Ending the moratorium is necessary for public health reasons, those who signed the letter stated.
"We believe this research is important to pandemic preparedness," said Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "Our research to understand how avian viruses adapt to mammals will lead to better surveillance and vaccines... The greater risk is not doing research that could help us to be better equipped to deal with a pandemic."
The furor started in December 2011, when concerns that research into a genetically mutated form of bird flu could escape from labs or fall into the hands of bioterrorists. This prompted U.S. scientific advisers to ask Nature and Science to withhold key details of the groundbreaking research conducted by Kawaoka and Fouchier.
So far, the so-called avian flu strains have rarely been transmitted from birds to humans, but the genetically modified virus that was created by scientists in the United States and Holland has been more transmissible in animal experiments, potentially setting the stage for a deadly pandemic among humans.
Last April, the U.S. government gave the go-ahead for publication of two controversial studies, led by Kawaoka and Fouchier.
The research revealed that as few as five mutations are enough to make the H5N1 avian flu virus transmissible via airborne droplets between ferrets, considered the best animal model to study diseases in humans.
In countries where research will resume, some of the tighter standards will include strict bio-safety guidelines for the laboratories where such research is conducted. Scientists have also signed documents affirming that they will not share the mutated virus with other parties without permission of the funder.
In addition to the Netherlands, Canada is poised to start research again, although discussions are still under way in Japan, Kawaoka said.
Kawaoka said he did not know when research might begin again in the United States.
"The U.S. has been unclear in how long it would take," Fouchier added. "If the U.S. would have said at the National Institutes of Health meeting in November of last year that it would take another three months, we probably would have waited. But we did not get that answer."
"It may take one, two, three years," he continued. "Many countries do this research. Should all countries really wait for the U.S., and why?"
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the United States has "done as much as we can as far as addressing the concerns." He said a system for evaluating the safety of proposed H5N1 transmission research in mammals, up for public comment this month, should allow federally funded research within weeks, USA Today reported.