Scientists studying a more transmissible strain of the H5N1 avian influenza virus have agreed to halt their research for 60 days out of concern that the virus they created could accidentally escape or be used as a devastating weapon of bioterrorism.
Thirty-nine scientists signed a letter that was published in the journals Nature and Science defending their research. They said that it was crucial to public health efforts, including the development of surveillance programs that could be used to detect mutations in H5N1 that might lead to a pandemic, according to Reuters.
The researchers appear to be bowing to a widespread outcry over the potential for the virus to escape from laboratories or to be used as a bioterror weapon.
The signatories included the leaders of two independent teams from the United States and the Netherlands who created a more virulent form of the virus that can easily spread among humans. Other signatories included influenza experts from institutions like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of Hong Kong.
Ron Fouchier, a scientist with the University of Erasmus in the Netherlands who is at the center of the controversy, said that the decision is totally voluntary and designed to give global health agencies and governments time to examine the potential benefits of the research and to weigh its risks.
“It is the right thing to do, given the controversies in the U.S.,” Fouchier said, Reutersreports.
In December, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked Science and Nature to omit certain portions of Fouchier’s research, as well as research conducted by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said that the decision to pause the research was warranted.
“The proposal the investigators put forth to do this research was appropriate,” Fauci, who was involved in the moratorium’s decision, said, Reuters reports. “The value of the research is clear, as even the biosecurity board unanimously agreed.”