Research on transmissible avian flu viruses needs to continue if pandemics are to be prevented, according to Yoshiro Kawaoka of the University of Tokyo and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writing in Nature.
Kawaoka is a lead researcher on one of the two recent studies showing how H5N1 can be transmitted through airborne droplets, and his work is at the center of an international discussion over whether its findings should be made public. Kawaoka writes that, to date, H5N1 viruses have not been transmitted between humans, and some experts have argued that such a thing is impossible. But given the potential consequences of a global outbreak, it is crucial to know whether these viruses can ever become transmissible.
Work by his group and an independent study led by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, suggest that H5N1 viruses have the potential to spread between mammals. As the risks of such research and its publication are debated by the community, Kawaoka argues that transmission studies should be pursued with urgency.
Some have argued that the risk of such studies — misuse and accidental release, for example — outweigh the benefits. Kawaoka counters that H5N1 viruses circulating in nature already pose a threat, because influenza viruses mutate constantly and can cause pandemics with great losses of life.
The new work has implications for pandemic preparedness. There is an urgent need to expand development, production and distribution of vaccines against H5 viruses, and to stockpile antiviral compounds.
Kawaoka said he believes that the benefits of these studies — the knowledge that H5 haemagglutinin-possessing viruses pose a risk and the ability to monitor them and develop countermeasures — outweigh the risks. High biosafety and security standards can be met.
However, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has recommended that details of both studies should be restricted and released only to select individuals on a “need-to-know” basis. Kawaoka said he acknowledges the advisory role of the board, but does not concur with its decision.
Wide data dissemination would attract researchers from other areas to contribute to the field, said Kawaoka. This is crucial, because new ideas are needed to answer some of the most urgent questions. For example, the specific mutations that have been identified suggest that influenza transmission is more complex than anticipated and involves not only the receptor-binding properties of haemagglutinin, but other biological and physical properties.
To find better solutions to dual-use concerns, the international community should convene to discuss how to minimize risk while supporting scientific discovery, said Kawaoka. Flu investigators have agreed to a 60-day moratorium on avian flu transmission research because of the current controversy, the work remains urgent and should not be given up.