Yoshihiro Kawaoka

UW-Madison virology professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka, seen in this 2007 file photo behind a heavy steel door in the university's flu research building, has gone through several iterations of a manuscript to the journal Nature to comply with a request from the U.S. government not to reveal all the details of how to make a version of the deadly bird flu.

CRAIG SCHREINER – State Journal archives

A UW-Madison scientist whose bird flu research has prompted an international debate over biosecurity, bioterrorism and censorship said Friday he would stop the research for 60 days to allow for more discussion of the need for the work.

Yoshihiro Kawaoka and a Dutch scientist doing similar research said they would halt studies on bird flu viruses that can spread easily in the lab among ferrets — and thus, possibly humans.

"We realize organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work," they said in a statement released Friday by the journals Nature and Science.

Thirty-seven other scientists signed the statement in support.

It remains unclear when Nature and Science might report the research findings by Kawaoka and Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, including Kawaoka's paper submitted to Nature.

A government advisory board last month asked Kawaoka and Fouchier to remove details from their reports to prevent terrorists from using the recipes for the viruses to create a biological weapon.

The National Institutes of Health said it is working with the journals to give select researchers access to the redacted information.

Some scientists have defended the research and decried what they call censorship, while others have said the studies threaten public safety.

Kawaoka has done his research at UW-Madison's Institute for Influenza Virus Research at University Research Park. The university built the $12.5 million lab for him in 2007 after the University of Pittsburgh offered him an attractive recruitment package.

The lab is classified as Biosafety Level 3-Agriculture, half a notch below the top level of BSL4, in which workers don special suits with self-contained breathing devices.

In the many BSL3 labs on campus, researchers wear gloves, masks and disposable jumpsuits and shower upon leaving the lab. The BSL3-Ag designation — the highest at the university — carries additional requirements, such as extra air handling systems and pressure testing so no air leaks out.

Kawaoka has remained silent during months of controversy over the bird flu study in ferrets. But in an email Friday to the State Journal, he said that federal officials approved his lab and that workers undergo background checks by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

He said he agreed to the 60-day suspension because "the public and policymakers need time to learn about the value of what we do and understand that appropriate precautions are in place."

He didn't respond to a question asking if he volunteered to halt the research or was pressured to do so.

Kawaoka said his research simulates events in nature, where flu viruses mutate and swap genetic information, potentially creating viruses that could spread easily between people.

The bird flu virus, or H5N1, has been circulating for years, mostly in Asia. It appears to be more deadly in people than other flu viruses but rarely spreads between them. If the virus became easily transmissible, health officials fear it could cause a pandemic or global outbreak of flu that could kill millions.

"It is a potentially deadly virus, and research to understand this pathogen, so we can develop effective vaccines and therapeutics, must be conducted with great care," Kawaoka said.

"The objective of our research is to benefit society by helping combat viruses that pose a risk to human health."

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