BETHESDA, Md. -- The dangers of modifying the avian influenza virus to be more virulent or contagious are outweighed by the anticipated scientific gains of such studies, discussion moderators said at a federally sponsored conference of international issue experts on Tuesday.
“Such experiments have provided valuable information” on the pathogen’s drug resistance and communicability, among other areas, virologist Kanta Subbarao said in a summary of findings from the two-day meeting
at the headquarters of the National Institutes of Health.
Genetic modifications made to avian flu in two controversial studies demonstrated the potential for a natural strain of the virus to leap between mammals, but further similar research is warranted to answer questions concerning transmission mechanisms, said Robert Webster, a virologist at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Tennessee.
Still, a number of conference participants said panel moderators had glossed over concerns that further related studies could lead to the accidental or deliberate release of a lethal disease agent. The meeting was intended to provide input in a wider international debate taking place on “gain-of-function” bird flu research, which scientists have voluntarily suspended since early this year.
“We in the influenza community have really not done a good job of articulating the benefits [of gain-of-function influenza studies]. The risks are kind of obvious,” said Nancy Cox, influenza division chief at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The meeting has "put us on the road to consensus in some areas although there isn't absolute consensus," NIAID head Anthony Fauci said.
Participants generally agreed that a proposal
to conduct special reviews of federal grant requests for gain-of-function influenza research is unacceptably broad, according to meeting moderators.
National Institutes of Health officials plan to continue accepting comments on the draft policy through Jan. 10.
The proposal for the Health and Human Services Department to review a range of possible research into H5N1 pathogenicity is “too inclusive to be functional,” and should instead be limited to studies that seek to increase airborne transmission of avian flu between mammals, University of Wisconsin (Madison) scientist Yoshihiro Kawaoka said on Monday. Kawaoka oversaw one of the two studies that genetically modified the H5N1 virus to increase its communicability between ferrets.
Concerned that the full findings from the studies could enable bad actors to assemble an enhanced virus for an act of bioterrorism, a federal panel of biodefense experts last year recommended avoiding the publication of certain data from Kawaoka’s team and another group at Erasmus University in the Netherlands. The National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity later reversed its decision after the scientists submitted additional data.
The HHS proposal does not constitute a “mandate of what we will or will not fund,” Fauci said.
Federal officials plan to seek comment in the “not-too-distant future” on another proposal
that "addresses the roles and responsibilities" of the U.S. government, as well as scientists and their sponsoring institutions, in overseeing sensitive biological research involving other pathogens, NIH Associate Director Amy Patterson said, A policy
announced this spring addresses research involving 15 sensitive biological agents.
Fauci said finalization of the two review policies would take place in an "expedited" manner following completion of their respective comment periods.