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Researchers Temporarily Halt Research on H5N1 Avian Influenza

  • Date: 2012/01/23 (Rev: 2012/09/21) Georgetown University Medical Center
  • Synopsis : Moratorium will provide opportunity for institutions to assess best way of overseeing dual use research which has significant potential for public health benefits and chance for harm.

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A Georgetown University Medical Center professor says the voluntary action taken by two research teams to temporarily halt work involving the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 is laudable.

H5N1 - (avian flu) is a highly contagious virus found in wild aquatic birds. It can also infect domestic poultry and other bird and animal species. Avian flu viruses do not normally infect humans. Rare cases of H5N1 in humans have been reported. Most human cases of H5N1 occur in people directly exposed to infected poultry. You cannot get H5N1 from properly handled and cooked poultry or eggs.

In the researchers' statement, published today by Science and Nature, the authors stated that they "recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks." The statement comes in the wake of a debate following the U.S. government's request that Science and Nature withhold scientific information related to the genetically modified H5N1 virus because of bio-security concerns.

"This is a laudable decision to make sure that all voices are heard on such an important issue," says John D. Kraemer, JD, MPH, assistant professor of health systems administration at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies. He is also affiliated with the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. Trained in both public health and the law, Kraemer conducts scholarship on public health law and ethics, with a particular focus on the ethical and legal limits of governmental action to address health concerns.

"The moratorium will provide an opportunity for institutions to assess the best way of overseeing dual use research - that which has both significant potential for public health benefits and a chance for harm," he adds.

In 2011, two research teams - one from the United States and one from the Netherlands - announced that they had genetically modified the H5N1 avian influenza virus in such a way that it could possibly spread rapidly among humans. They estimated that half of those who would contract the engineered virus would die (the research was conducted in an animal model believed to represent human behavior of the virus). Their work, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was submitted independently to the journals Nature and Science for publication. The National Science Advisory Board for Bio-security (NSABB), which advises the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), recommended that Science and Nature redact key information prior to publication out of concern that published details about the papers' methodology and results could become a blueprint for bio-terrorism.

On January 19, Kraemer and his colleague, Lawrence O. Gostin, the Linda D. and Timothy J. O'Neill Professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center, published an invited opinion on the topic for Science's "Policy Forum." ("The Limits of Government Regulation of Science" 19 Jan 2012).

In it, Kraemer and Gostin said the U.S. government's request that the journals Science and Nature withhold that scientific information does not violate the First Amendment. They advised, however, that a fair, transparent process undertaken by research organizations is preferable to governmental constraints on disseminating scientific information.

"The NSABB process seems to have worked well in this instance," says Kraemer. "It raised legitimate security concerns while avoiding censorship of the scientific press. But there remains a need to strengthen precautions around this type of research before scientific censorship occurs."

About Georgetown University Medical Center - Georgetown University Medical Center is an internationally recognized academic medical center with a three-part mission of research, teaching and patient care (through MedStar Health). GUMC's mission is carried out with a strong emphasis on public service and a dedication to the Catholic, Jesuit principle of cura personalis - or "care of the whole person." The Medical Center includes the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing & Health Studies, both nationally ranked; Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute; and the Biomedical Graduate Research Organization (BGRO), which accounts for the majority of externally funded research at GUMC including a Clinical Translation and Science Award from the National Institutes of Health. In fiscal year 2010-11, GUMC accounted for 85 percent of the university's sponsored research funding.

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