Research on the bird flu may start up again on the University of Wisconsin campus after scientists voluntarily put the project on hold more than a year ago.
UW spokesperson Terry Devitt said UW professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka from the university’s Department of Pathobiological Sciences may resume his research on the transmission of the bird flu virus. Devitt said Kawaoka and scientists who did similar research stopped their research in order for the government and public to work through some issues.
“[The moratorium] had been in place for a year, and the researchers were anxious to get back to work,” Devitt said.
He said questions regarding the research have been satisfied. He said researchers were waiting for guidelines, which the National Institute of Health published in Science Magazine last Friday.
Devitt said the research on the transmission of the avian flu has started in other countries, but not in the United States yet.
According to a UW statement, there have been more than 500 cases of bird flu, and more than half of those have been fatal. Devitt said the majority of bird flu cases were found in people who worked or lived in close proximity to birds.
Rebecca Moritz, a research compliance specialist in the Office of Biological Safety at UW, said the moratorium was self-imposed by the research community to allow public debate to play out and answer questions about the research.
The research manuscripts of Kawaoka and a group of scientists in the Netherlands drew international scrutiny because mutations of the virus were able to be transmitted between mammals, specifically ferrets, she said.
“People questioned what was the benefit of this type of research,” Moritz said. “The benefit is global public health.”
Moritz said both Kawaoka and the Dutch scientists used ferrets in their research because ferrets are the best model to study the flu in humans. She said ferrets have respiratory tracks that are similar to a human’s, and ferrets also cough and sneeze like humans.
She said Kawaoka found four mutations that allowed a strain of bird flu to transmit through aerosol droplets from one ferret to another. She said bird flu was not able to do this before.
Moritz said because ferrets and humans have similar respiratory systems, it is possible the mutated strand of bird flu could transmit from one human to another human. The original strand of bird flu cannot be transmitted between mammals, she said.
The Dutch researchers found five mutations, and their virus was directly inoculated in the lungs of ferrets, she said. This was lethal to the ferrets, she said.
Both manuscripts were published with only minor modifications, she added.
Moritz said the United States government has made a list of bacteria, viruses and toxins that need to be registered with the government. She said certain government bodies regulate all the entities that use these agents and added bird flu falls under these regulations.
She said bird flu researchers need to start figuring out the mechanism behind transmissions and the mutations themselves.
“There are lots of things they could do,” she said. “They will continue where their studies left off.”