Web Date: January 4, 2012
WHO Speaks Out On Bird Flu Flap
The World Health Organization has weighed in on the controversy surrounding potentially lethal lab-made forms of the H5N1 avian flu virus, saying it is “deeply concerned about the potential negative consequences” of the work.
The lab-created viruses are more transmissible than real-world strains of H5N1 and so 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U.S. government—a federal advisory board called for the journals Science and Nature to censor key details of the as-yet-unpublished research (C&EN, Jan. 2, page 9).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, the United Nations health body 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 its new resource- and benefit-sharing rules pertaining to viruses should be followed, so that developing nations at the highest H5N1 risk can partake of any antivirals or diagnostics that emerge from the research. The rules, known as the pandemic influenza preparedness framework, were adopted by WHO member states in May 2011.
The WHO’s benefit-sharing rules, while important, are tangential to the big biosafety questions these studies raise, says David P. Fidler, an expert on bioterrorism at Indiana University. “Nobody knows where this is going to go,” Fidler adds. “If this is all WHO has to say about this issue, it’s illustrative of the fact that nobody’s really in charge.”
An extensive international discussion about preparing for the worst-case scenario these flu strains threaten should have taken place long ago, says John D. Steinbruner, director of the Center for International & Security Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. “This is a problem that requires more refined international cooperation than anybody is willing to do.”
“Let’s hope this episode is a teachable moment, and let’s hope there’s some response before this thing gets out,” he adds.
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