Virologists can resume their research on the transmissibility of the H5N1 avian flu virus in most countries. During a one-year pause they have explained extensively that such studies are of great importance to public health and that the research can be carried out safely. Forty researchers from, among other, the Viroscience department of Erasmus MC, have today made this announcement in the scientific journals Nature and Science.
At the end of January last year, flu researchers voluntarily decided on a self-imposed 60-day moratorium on their research on the transmissibility of the H5N1 avian flu virus. In February, the World Health Organization (WHO) asked the researchers to extend this pause period. The WHO and the researchers wanted to use this period to explain to the outside world what the research entails, what its benefits are for public health and that the research can be conducted safely. This was necessary as it was feared that the research would pose too many risks as a result of misuse of the virus or accidents in laboratories.
The researchers write in Nature and Science that these requirements have been met. They have shown that the virus is not as dangerous as initially assumed by many people. The H5N1 virus transmitted by air is not lethal and the virus does not transmit efficiently. The researchers have shared and discussed all the details of their studies with experts. The authorities in the countries where research on the transmissibility of the H5N1 avian flu virus is being carried out have sought advice in the field of biosafety, so that the research can be safely resumed.
The researchers are of the opinion that it is important that the studies are resumed, because they believe that transmissible H5N1 viruses can also occur in nature and are a threat to public health. In 2011, virologists from Erasmus MC’s Viroscience department discovered that the H5N1 avian flu virus can mutate to become airborne in mammals. As few as 5 mutations could be enough to make the virus transmissible. The researchers discovered new mutations associated with this spread of the virus. They now want to carry out further research on the biological traits associated with each of the mutations identified and they want to determine whether the mutations identified also make other flu and avian flu viruses airborne. In addition, they want to investigate how easily these mutations occur in nature. To this end, additional surveillance studies are needed in mammals, including humans. And finally, the researchers want to study the effectiveness of vaccines and drugs, should a pandemic become unpreventable in the future.
The researchers emphasize that resuming the studies is important, but that the research has to be carried out safely. In some countries, a final decision has not yet been made on the safety recommendations. “This is the case, for example, in the United States. American researchers and research projects receiving funds from the US will, therefore, have to be patient”, says virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC. “The work in Europe can be resumed. In addition to funds from the US, Erasmus MC has a project under the Seventh Framework Program of the European Union, and will be able to resume the research within this framework shortly.
Erasmus MC is the largest and most authoritative scientific University Medical Center in the Netherlands. Almost 13,000 staff members work within the core tasks of patient care, education, and scientific research on the continuous improvement and enforcement of individual patient care and social healthcare. They develop high-level knowledge, pass this on to future professionals, and apply it in everyday patient care. Over the next five years, Erasmus MC wants to grow into one of the best medical institutes in the world. Erasmus MC is part of the Dutch Federation of University Medical Centers (NFU): www.nfu.nl.