Letter to Chancellor Merkel on the debate on the bird flu virus

Dear Chancellor Merkel

Debate on the bird flu virus

We are writing to you with reference to ongoing discussions about research on the H5N1 bird flu virus.

As has been reported, international teams of scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (U.S.) and at the Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam (Netherlands) have created an artificial type of the known bird flu virus, which is supposedly even more dangerous for human beings and animals.

On 20 January 2012, scientists worldwide declared a 60-day moratorium on research involving further mutations of the virus (see e.g. Nature 26 January 2012). One of their intentions was to invite the international community to comment on their projects. Furthermore, in February the WHO organized an expert panel, which spoke out in favour of an extension of the moratorium. The underlying motivation was to give the public more time to comment on this issue.

We feel that the German government should also take a stand on this issue and the following points be taken into account:

  • The German government should push for the destruction of the above mentioned newly created viruses (Fouchier et al. und Kawaoka et al.).
  • Current comparable research projects in Germany (e.g. on intended enhancement of transmissibility and deadliness of dangerous flu viruses) should be stopped for the time being.
  • Scientific, state, commercial and civil society institutions should agree on binding rules for research with a high potential for misuse. In particular, assessment of the risks of misuse of planned biotechnological studies should be regulated, and the risk assessment process itself be compulsory and efficient.
  • Furthermore, we consider it crucial that the German government advocates the establishment of processes and bodies on an international level. Their task should be to analyse the accountability of such research before releasing results with potential for misuse.
  • Access to and dissemination of data with significant potential for misuse should be limited. Access should be given only to registered experts who have a justified interest. Procedures should be established so that a democratically legitimised panel of scientific and political experts can decide who has access.
  • Biosecurity, especially the aspect of potential misuse, should be a compulsory part of education in life science studies.

The ongoing debate shows that politicians lack the appropriate tools to handle such situations in a reasonable manner with the involvement of civil society. The fact that scientists have set a deadline for debating these issues within the international community is unacceptable.

In view of this situation, we would like to point out the risks of Synthetic Biology especially since they have gained special relevance in the light of recent research. Even though the studies of Fouchier and Kawaoka cannot be attributed to Synthetic Biology, we would like to bring to your personal attention the “Call” we made last year “to protect the environment from synthetic organisms”. If the Fouchier and Kawaoka findings were published in detail, other laboratories would be able to manufacture the genetic material of the virus, thus greatly increasing the risk of misuse.

We are highly concerned about inadequate regulation in Synthetic Biology, both in Germany and on an international level. The scope of artificial gene synthesis (DNA) has widened continuously in recent years and has even made the creation of dangerous pathogens possible. The laboratories, which have the equipment needed for such operations are not at present adequately regulated.

Therefore, we have set up a joint petition with other NGOs calling for more adequate regulation. Around 10,000 signatures were handed in to the Federal Ministry of Education and Research in September 2011. As the appeal states:

'The signatories are calling for the registration and continuous control of companies and research institutions which synthesise or use genes and organisms. Such registration and control could, for example, avert the production of dangerous pathogens and biological weapons.'

Chancellor Merkel, we are calling on you to respond to the ongoing debate and to advocate stricter monitoring of Synthetic Biology. The German government must take action now on both a national and international level to initiate binding regulations at this important interface between science and politics as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely

original letter see under http://www.testbiotech.org/supervirus