UPDATED: mBio has published4 editorial/commentary pieces on the H5N1 research debate. I’ve posted the links at the bottom of this blog post.
Later today mBio will publish a pair of opposing views on what level of laboratory biosecurity (BSL-3 or BSL-4) should be required in order to work on the H5N1 virus.
While there are many differences in procedures between them, in the broadest definition under BSL-3 it is the pathogen that is kept isolated, and worked on in specially designed negative airflow biological safety cabinets (BSC). Lab personnel wear fairly standard PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment) in BSL-3 labs.
With enhanced BSL-4 security, the focus is on isolating and protecting lab workers from the pathogen, and so they must all wear fully contained BSL-4 `space suits’, and decontaminate before leaving the work area.
BSL-4 labs work on the most dangerous pathogens that pose a particularly high risk of infection, such as Marburg, Ebola, Lassa fever, CCHF, and smallpox.
BSL-4 labs are far more expensive to build and maintain than BSL-3 facilities, and there are not nearly as many of them around the world.
Which presents a dilemma. If you restrict work on the H5N1 virus to only BSL-4 labs, that would exclude many universities (and even entire countries) from being able to conduct research on the virus.
You may recall that early in February Canada restricted H5N1 research to BSL-4 facilities (see Canada Issues Biosafety Advisory For H5N1 Research).
First stop, the press release from the American Society for Microbiology
In the controversy surrounding the newly developed strains of avian H5N1 flu viruses, scientists and policy makers are struggling with one question in particular: what level of biosafety is best for studying these potentially lethal strains of influenza? In a pair of commentaries, researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and the University of Michigan argue their different views of how to safely handle H5N1 flu viruses. The commentaries will be published in mBio®, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, on Tuesday, March 6.
This fall, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) set off a debate when it asked the authors of two recent H5N1 research studies and the scientific journals that planned to publish them to withhold crucial details of the research in the interest of biosecurity. The researchers had taken H5N1, a virus that cannot easily transmit from human to human, and developed strains of the virus that can transmit easily between ferrets, which are a common model for human influenza.
These H5N1 strains and others like them that might be developed in the future could pose a grave threat to human life, but researchers and others argue that studying these H5N1 strains could help bolster preparedness efforts and vaccine development to help fend off a potential H5N1 pandemic. How can we balance the need to protect human life from the accidental escape of an H5N1 strain with the need to continue research that might prevent a naturally occurring outbreak? Which biosafety level (BSL) is right for the H5N1 virus?
In the commentaries appearing in mBio, two experts offer opposing views of the appropriate level of security for dealing with H5N1 viruses. The authors agree that, with a reported case fatality rate that could be as high as 50% or more, H5N1 could create a pandemic of disastrous proportions, but they differ in their opinions of how to strike a balance between biosecurity and potentially life-saving research.
Next up, from the Canadian Press, a preview from Helen Branswell.
The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
By: Helen Branswell, The Canadian Press
Posted: 03/6/2012 3:02 AM TORONTO - Future work on mutated bird flu viruses should only take place in laboratories with the highest level of biosafety, suggests a new commentary on the controversy over two studies that led to the creation of these viruses.
But an opposing view argues that to restrict work on the viruses to so-called BSL4 labs would not leave the world safer, but would impede the quest to find out how flu viruses that normally infect birds can adapt to infect people.
Both opinion pieces should be online at 10am EST, March 6th, and available at this link.
Arturo Casadevall and Thomas Shenk
Michael J. Imperiale and Michael G. Hanna III
Lisa N. Murillo