01/20/2012 12:50 EST | Updated 03/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Flu scientists halt research on lab-made viruses for 60 days to foster talks

Leading international influenza scientists took a time out Friday, volunteering to observe a 60-day moratorium on research into controversial bird flu transmission studies.

The moratorium was designed to let the steam escape from the pressure cooker that the situation has become. It is also a strategic attempt to pre-empt any political moves in the United States to force an end to research designed to try to find out how the H5N1 flu virus could adapt to spread easily among people.

The moratorium was announced in a letter signed by 39 leading flu scientists from around the world and published by Science and Nature, the two journals which intend to publish two studies that triggered the controversy.

The scientists signalled they would take the good-faith approach to give the broader international community time to forge a way through the quagmire.

"It's a cooling off period and it allows everybody to discuss and think this through," said Ron Fouchier, the Dutch virologist whose laboratory is one of the two at the core of this controversy.

"We give more time and breathing room to the politicians, to international organizations, to the scientists themselves to discuss if and how this work should continue in the future."

The research moratorium may also take pressure off the journals, which, sources say, have been insisting they would publish the papers by late January or early February.

Dr. Antony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the journals are now indicating they may be willing to postpone publication.

Fauci said three developments — the research moratorium, the fact that the journals may be willing to ease up on the publication schedule and word that the World Health Organization will host an international meeting to try to sort out the issues — are important steps towards finding solutions.

"This is not going to be easy to get it right. But I think what's happened now is a very important step in that direction," Fauci said in an interview.

Fauci said he suggested a moratorium to Fouchier and applauded the Dutch scientist for taking up the idea and getting all major influenza research laboratories to sign on to it.

He said he had been worried that if the scientific community didn't take the initiative, one might be forced on it.

"My concern was that with the growing anxiety and the growing amount of attention that this was getting in the press that we would have imposed upon us from above a restriction on the research that might have set a bad precedent," Fauci said.

Fouchier, who is based at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have been studying H5N1 viruses for years, trying to answer the pressing question: Could this virus evolve to become a human pathogen?

To date, Kawaoka has been silent about his so-far unpublished work and about the controversy.

But Fouchier reported at a flu conference last September that his lab had managed to create a mutated H5N1 virus that spread easily among ferrets.

Ferrets are considered the best animal model for predicting how a flu virus will act in people, though scientists insist it is not a given that a virus that easily infects the animals would transmit as readily among people.

Still, biosecurity experts in the United States reacted to the pending publication of the studies with alarm, likening it to publishing the recipe for a potential bioterrorism agent. Some suggested the work should never have been done.

On the recommendation of the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity, the U.S. government asked the journals not to publish the works in full. The journals and the scientists have grudgingly agreed, but only if a system is devised that will allow the full details to be shared with those who need to see them.

Work on figuring out how to create such as system is underway, though it is far from advanced. "This is a very complicated issue," Fauci said.

While he praised the moratorium, others argued it was not enough.

Michael Osterholm, a member of the NSABB, said he doesn't think two months is sufficient time to devise the system needed to oversee dissemination of the full studies to those with a legitimate need to see them.

"I'm not optimistic that we can do that in 60 days," said Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "I don't think it's realistic."

Osterholm said he doesn't want to see the world facing a crisis at the end of the 60 days, if the work isn't completed.

But Fauci took a more glass-half-full view of the situation. "Sixty days is better than no days, so let's take one step at a time."

Fouchier admitted there is a concern among the scientists that 60 days could stretch to a longer period.

While it is manageable to stop work on these studies for two months, he said, finding the answers to what might make H5N1 a human virus is a pressing task and should not be delayed for longer.