UW Scientist Suspends Bird Flu Research

Amid public fear that bird flu viruses will escape a University of Wisconsin-Madison research laboratory, a UW scientist said Friday he is suspending his research for 60 days.

Researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, who is conducting similar research, have identified a flu virus spread easily among ferrets in their labs. The virus could potentially spread to humans.

The researchers said in a statement released on Friday they have taken appropriate safety precautions with their work, but agreed to put research on hold due to increasing biosafety and biosecurity concerns voiced by the public and media.

“We recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks,” the scientists said in the statement. “We propose to do so in an international forum in which the scientific community comes together to discuss and debate these issues.”

Thirty-seven other scientists signed the release in support.

UW-Madison learned of the research suspension on Thursday, said Terry Devitt, assistant director for UW Communications. Devitt said the 60-day postponement will not affect work at UW-Madison?s Institute for Influenza Virus Research, which was built for Kawaoka back in 2007. There are still several ongoing research projects at the facility, he said.

Last month, a government advisory board asked Kawaoka and Fouchier not to publish their bird flu findings in medical journals, with the concern that the information could be used as a form of bio-terrorism against the United States. The federal government paid for the research to see if the virus could mutate and become an increased threat to humans.

More than 300 people have died from bird flu since 1997.