Avian Flu Studies to Undergo Closer U.S. Scrutiny

The United States on Thursday unveiled a new policy for the conduct and publication of federally funded studies on modifying the avian influenza virus to be more communicable between people, the Los Angeles Times reported.

National Institutes of Health Associate Director Amy Patterson said the rules would now force scientists to directly state both the dangers and scientific value of their proposed research for it to be eligible for government support.

The policy's finalization means that federally backed H5N1 "gain-of-function" studies can now proceed after a suspension that followed controversy over two projects conducted in the United States and the Netherlands.

Patterson stated: "Further understanding [of] this virus is imperative."

The Health and Human Services Department would subject possible threats and scientific gains from research proposals to "a higher level of scrutiny" if they meet seven prerequisite standards. In part, a potential study must address an area of inquiry with major medical implications, no alternative research methods can exist, and sufficient means must be available to limit and monitor associated threats.

NIH Director Francis Collins on Thursday said the policy accounts for the "potential of this research to be misused by those who might aim to harm public health or national security."

One expert took issue with the policy's call for findings "to be broadly shared in order to realize its potential benefits to global health," the Times reported.

"The genie will get out of the bottle ... If we publish this, it's right there for everyone to know. Any lab in the world could do the same work," said Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Minnesota and a member of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.

The White House on Thursday issued a separate draft policy to govern a broader array of studies with potential weapon applications, Collins noted.

"These policies combined with existing requirements for biosafety and biosecurity will ensure comprehensive management of the risks of research while permitting continued progress in science," he said in released remarks.

Feb. 22, 2013
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The United States on Thursday unveiled a new policy for the conduct and publication of federally funded studies on modifying the avian influenza virus to be more communicable between people, the Los Angeles Times reported.

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