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January 19, 2012
NIH Statement on H5N1
Last month, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) — an independent expert committee that advises the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other Federal departments and agencies on matters of biosecurity — completed a review of two unpublished manuscripts describing National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded research on the transmissibility of H5N1 influenza. The NSABB concluded that publishing the methodological and other details of this work could potentially enable replication of experiments that had enhanced transmissibility of H5N1 influenza (in ferrets) by those who might wish to do harm, and recommended that the manuscripts not be published in full. NSABB members also discussed whether there should be a temporary moratorium on the broad communication of dual-use H5N1 research until the issues raised by the research could be resolved. HHS provided the NSABB's non-binding recommendations to the authors of the manuscripts and the editors of the journals to which the manuscripts had been submitted for publication. To date, the manuscripts have not been published.
Today, the authors of the unpublished manuscripts and other scientists in the H5N1 research community announced that they will voluntarily suspend certain research on the H5N1 virus for 60 days, pending a thorough international discussion about its future directions and parameters for its safe conduct and responsible communication. This suspension applies both to research that enhances the transmissibility of highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses in mammals, as well as any experiments with H5N1 viruses already shown to be transmissible in ferrets. We applaud the decision by these scientists, who have demonstrated great responsibility and flexibility in pausing their work to allow for a full dialogue about the risks and benefits of this research. NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other U.S. government agencies that conduct or fund such research will also abide by this moratorium. We continue to urge the international scientific community to work toward a consensus on the future directions of such research to improve public health in light of international security implications, while ensuring the global influenza surveillance and research communities can share through appropriate means critical information about the potential transmissibility of H5N1 influenza in humans. Understanding how influenza viruses become human pandemic threats is vitally important to global health preparedness. Such research helps us to understand the ability of the virus to cross between species and enables the development of tools for the prediction, prevention, and treatment of outbreaks.
To this end, officials with the World Health Organization are now working to organize a forum for the international scientific community to discuss these issues in the coming weeks. We look forward to participating in this important dialogue.
Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
Director, National Institutes of Health
Anthony S. Fauci, M.D.
Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
National Institutes of Health