UN agency warns of danger of bird flu research and urges safety measures

30 December 2011

The United Nations health agency has voiced deep concern that scientific research undertaken on a strain of highly pathogenic influenza could have negative consequences but also acknowledged that tightly-controlled studies needed to continue to limit the possibility of future risks to the global population.

In a statement released today, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that recent studies on whether changes to the H5N1 strain of avian influenza could make it more transmissible between humans might lead to “possible risks and misuses.”

Recent media reports have noted that, if published, details of the research could provide bio-terrorists with crucial information on how to mutate the virus into a deadlier, human-to-human transmissible form.

“While it is clear that conducting research to gain such knowledge must continue, it is also clear that certain research, and especially that which can generate more dangerous forms of the virus than those which already exist, has risks,” the WHO statement warned, noting that any further research should be done “only after all important public health risks and benefits have been identified and reviewed.”

WHO also urged all research teams to fully abide by the regulations set out in the new Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework, which sets out a guideline to the sharing of influenza viruses with pandemic potential and the resulting benefits.

Since 2003, the H5N1 virus has killed or forced the culling of more than 400 million domestic poultry and caused an estimated $20 billion of economic damage. Although it does not infect humans often, about 60 per cent of those infected with it die. The latest death occurred earlier this year in Cambodia, which has registered eight cases of human infection this year – all of them fatal.

While H5N1 was believed to be eliminated from most of the 63 infected countries, in August 2011 the UN’s Food and Agriculture Agency (FAO) reported a surge in outbreaks of the virus, with almost 800 cases recorded between 2010 and 2011.

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