After a one year moratorium, controversial research into making the bird flu easier to spread among humans is set to resume. While some argue that the research is essential for understanding how viruses spread and insist that it could be used to prevent deadly pandemics that could wipe out millions of people, other top scientists are not convinced that the benefits outweigh the risks.
Research had been stopped one year ago amid debates and concerns about modified viruses escaping the laboratory or being used by terrorists. The moratorium gave authorities the time to assess the safety of the studies.
The type of bird flu involved in the research - H5N1 - is particularly deadly and has killed about half of the people who have been infected. The only reason that it has not caused millions of deaths around the world is because it is not able to easily spread from person to person. Rather, cases tend to come from close contact with infected birds.
Studies conducted on ferrets showed that between five to nine mutations were needed to get H5N1 spreading through the air from animal to animal. Two of the mutations have been seen in the wild, but by themselves aren't enough to sound any alarms.
If H5N1 were to become easily transmissible through the air, well that's the thing that Hollywood disaster films are made of, so it is easy to see why devising a more dangerous version of H5N1 would raise so many concerns.
However, the research could reveal some important insights that could prevent this kind of infection from arising in the wild, and help researchers to build defenses in case it does mutate in such a way. It could also help to design effective vaccines and anti-viral medications.
The controversy over the research is a question of balancing risks. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked academic journals not to publish key parts of the findings over concerns that terrorists could use the details to develop a biological weapon. It also sparked outcry among scientists who said that their academic freedom was being restricted. Yet other scientists said that the risk of the virus spreading was too great for such research to even take place, and described it as a folly.
Nevertheless, the details were eventually published in the journals Nature and Science. The academics involved, however, agreed to a voluntary 60-day moratorium, which was eventually extended to more than a year. This was to give governments time to review safety standards needed in laboratories to conduct research with enhanced viruses and whether they wanted to fund the research.
A letter signed by 40 virus researchers around the world was published in the journals Science and Nature indicating that the moratorium was being lifted. The letter said that appropriate conditions had been set in most of the world, and insisted that their studies were "essential for pandemic prepredness."
Professor Ron Fouchier from the Erasmus Medical Centre, one of the leading proponents of the research, said it had been "frustrating" to shut down research for a year, adding:
"This research is urgent, while we are having this pause bird flu virus continues to evolve in nature and we need to continue this research. We cannot wait for another year or two years."
Fouchier is expecting to restart his lab work within the next couple of weeks, but the case is not the same for many other research groups involved. The U.S. hasn't yet decided on the conditions that it will allow the experiments to take place, and this also applies to U.S.-funded research that takes place in other countries.
The announcement that research on the H5N1 virus would continue has continued the debate on whether or not the research should even take place.
Prof Robert May, from the University of Oxford and a former president of The Royal Society, said:
"These are not bad people, they are good people with good intentions, but they look through rose-coloured glasses at the security of the laboratories."
May says that past history suggests that "it will get out" as there have been more than a thousand cases of people being infected in labs with the highest standards, and notes that the 1977 outbreak of flu may have been connected to a Russian facility. May concluded, saying:
"That's why I feel the world is a safer place if we maintain this moratorium."
May is not alone in his stance, and the scientific community remains divided over the continuation of the research into H5N1.