As work on lethal bird flu research resumes, debate continues

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Last week, an international group of scientists announced their intention to resume research on the potentially deadly H5N1 bird flu virus after a year’s hiatus, even as debate over the safety of the research continued.

Researchers from the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and the University of Wisconsin-Madison created new strains of bird flu to test their ability to spread in ferrets, hoping they could glean clues as to how the disease might spread in humans. They agreed to a self-imposed research moratorium in January 2012 after wide concerns arose about safety and terrorism. On January 23, 2013, the Rotterdam and Wisconsin scientists declared an end to the moratorium. They noted that, over the past year, the World Health Organization and several countries have issued safety guidelines for bird flu researchers—and argued that the benefits of conducting the research outweigh the risks. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health is still debating the issue and plans to issue guidelines about such research soon.

In the wake of the scientists’ announcement, a January 26, 2013 New York Times editorial emphasized the need for caution. A January 23, 2013 Nature editorial urged continued debate on the matter, noting that there has still been no “irreproachable, independent risk-benefit analysis of such research.”