Issue Date: January 9, 2012
Biosafety: Lab-made bird flu has the World Health Organization ‘deeply concerned’
The World Health Organization (WHO) has weighed in on the controversy surrounding potentially lethal lab-made forms of the H5N1 avian flu virus. The United Nations’ health body says it is “deeply concerned about the potential negative consequences” of the work.
The lab-created viruses, WHO officials note, are more transmissible than real-world strains of H5N1 and might cause a pandemic if they escaped the lab or got into the wrong hands. The virus has already spurred an unprecedented move by the U.S. government—a federal advisory board called for the journals Science and Nature to censor key details of the as-yet-unpublished research (C&EN, Jan. 2, page 9).
In its first statement about the lab-made flu, WHO acknowledged that even though research to understand H5N1 carries risks, it is “a scientific and public health imperative” that such studies be conducted. WHO also stressed that researchers must follow the new resource- and benefit-sharing rules pertaining to viruses so that developing nations at the highest H5N1 risk can partake of any antivirals or diagnostics that emerge from the studies. The rules, known as the pandemic influenza preparedness (PIP) framework, were adopted by WHO member states in May 2011.
Although important, the WHO rules are tangential to the big biosafety questions these studies raise, says David P. Fidler, an expert on bioterrorism at Indiana University, Bloomington. “If this stuff gets into the hands of the bad guys or it escapes,” Fidler says, “I’m not worried about the PIP framework.”
- Chemical & Engineering News
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