On Tuesday, 24 July, NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce writes that ‘[t]op influenza researchers around the world published a statement back in January  saying they would temporarily hold off on any work with contagious, lab-altered forms of a particularly worrisome form of bird flu. The unusual voluntary moratorium was supposed to last only 60 days, but it’s been more than six months. And scientists don’t agree on what should happen next. Some scientists and researchers say these mutant bird flu viruses could cause a devastating pandemic if they ever got out of the lab. Others argue that the work is vital to help public health officials get ready for the possible threat of a flu pandemic that might emerge naturally, as bird flu viruses mutate in the wild. Flu researchers are going to New York next week for the annual conference of the government-funded Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS). Researchers who made the mutant viruses will be there, plus others who signed the voluntary moratorium’.
And to remind ourselves what we are talking about, let’s go back to 2006 and read Debora Mackenzie’s words: the “H5N1 strain of influenza – often referred to as bird flu – is first known to have jumped from chickens to humans in 1997. Since 2004 it has ripped through poultry and wild bird populations across Eurasia, and had a 53% mortality rate in the first 147 people it is known to have infected. Health authorities fear this strain, or its descendent, could cause a lethal new flu pandemic in people with the potential to kill billions. Flu has been a regular scourge of humanity for thousands of years. Flu viruses each possess a mere 10 genes encoded in RNA. All of the 16 known genetic subgroups originate in water birds, and especially in ducks. The virus is well adapted to their immune systems, and does not usually make them sick. This leaves the animals free to move around and spread the virus – just what it needs to persist. But sometimes a bird flu virus jumps to an animal whose immune system it is not adapted to. In chickens – originally a forest bird and not a natural host – it causes a moderate disease but can readily mutate to a more severe, highly pathogenic strain. Just such a strain of H5N1 flu, named after its surface proteins, began rampaging through large chicken farms in east Asia sometime before 2003”.
Viruses are wily creatures, in fact there is some debate as to whether a virus lives or is a mere chemical reaction. The virology professor Vincent Racaniello explains on his blog that “Viruses are not living things. Viruses are complicated assemblies of molecules, including proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, and carbohydrates, but on their own they can do nothing until they enter a living cell. Without cells, viruses would not be able to multiply. Therefore, viruses are not living things”. It is a strange world we live in, as Racaniello explains: when “a virus encounters a cell, a series of chemical reactions occur that lead to the production of new viruses. These steps are completely passive, that is, they are predefined by the nature of the molecules that comprise the virus particle. Viruses don’t actually ‘do’ anything. Often scientists and non-scientists alike ascribe actions to viruses such as employing, displaying, destroying, evading, exploiting, and so on. These terms are incorrect because viruses are passive, completely at the mercy of their environment”.
And now to get back to the possible lifting of the moratorium on altering the flu virus in laboratory environments that might be decided upon next week . . . The Stanford University microbiologist David Relman states unequivocally: [if the moratorium is lifted right after the upcoming meeting], “I’d be concerned”. Sentiments which are echoed by the Harvard School of Public Health epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch: “But the risks are not to scientists. The risks are to the world. The risks are that one of these viruses gets out of a laboratory and starts to spread from person to person. And so the people who have something at stake are not the scientific community only”. In other words, if the moratorium were lifted next week, there is very little that would prevent a Twelve Monkeys scenario from being enacted . . . On its Facebook page, CEIRS announces that the ‘2012 6th Annual CEIRS Network Meeting (Mount Sinai) to be held in New York City, July 29-August 1, 2012’.
 Debora Mackenzie, “Introduction: Bird Flu” New Scientist (04 September 2006). http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9944-introduction-bird-flu.html?full=true.
 Vincent Racaniello, “Are Viruses Living?” virology blog (09 June 2004). http://www.virology.ws/2004/06/09/are-viruses-living/.
 Vincent Racaniello, “Are Viruses Living?”.
 Nell Greenfieldboyce, “Bird Flu Researchers To Meet About Research Moratorium-2”.
 “CEIRS-Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance” Facebook (23 September 2011). https://www.facebook.com/pages/CEIRS-Centers-of-Excellence-for-Influenza-Research-and-Surveillance/252648441447170#!/pages/CEIRS-Centers-of-Excellence-for-Influenza-Research-and-Surveillance/252648441447170.