Risk assessment: Laboratory-created A(H5N1) viruses transmissible between ferrets

risk assessment

The results of two, as yet unpublished, investigations of laboratory-induced genetic changes in avian influenza A(H5N1) viruses have been reported to have found that a surprisingly few number of changes make the viruses transmissible between ferrets, the most commonly used model for the way influenza behaves in humans. The possibility that this could have resulted in the development in laboratories of A(H5N1) influenza viruses transmissible between humans has caused concern for public safety and generated unusually high levels of debate in the scientific community. This report summarises and explains the complex public health and scientific issues around these developments including the positive and negative aspects of some of the responses that have been proposed internationally.

Executive summary

This risk assessment summarises and explains the complex interlocking public health and scientific issues around these developments including the pros and the cons of some of the responses that have been proposed internationally.

ECDC points out the difficulty to give a reasoned opinion without sight of data and analyses. At present, it is not even clear how pathogenic the viruses in the Netherlands are in animal models. In agreement with the conclusions of the WHO initial meeting on this issue, ECDC indicates that it advocates open publication of the findings following peer-review.

ECDC  stresses the need to consider mechanisms for a robust biorisk-management approach along the lines of international standards and EU-wide guidance on laboratory biosafety/biosecurity for any future emerging threats. In the short-term, ECDC suggests that a risk-based approach is taken.

In the risk assessment published today, ECDC also emphasises the importance of the new Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework for dealing with a serious cross-border threats like a pandemic and shares the concern that a block on communication of research findings could be a threat to that Framework agreed by all EU/EEA Members States at the World Health Assembly in 2011.