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Experts to Vet Proposed U.S. Rules on Bird Flu Studies

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Indian health specialists in January remove birds from a poultry farm where the avian influenza virus was found. Public health officials and experts are meeting in Maryland this week to discuss potential new U.S. rules for grant funding for bird flu research (AP Photo/Sushanta Das). Indian health specialists in January remove birds from a poultry farm where the avian influenza virus was found. Public health officials and experts are meeting in Maryland this week to discuss potential new U.S. rules for grant funding for bird flu research (AP Photo/Sushanta Das).

WASHINGTON -- An Obama administration proposal to conduct special evaluations of federal grant requests for weapon-sensitive avian influenza research is set to go under the microscope this week at a gathering of public health officials and experts from around the world.

The two-day event -- scheduled to begin on Monday at the main campus of the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. -- would also examine the benefits and risks of so-called "gain-of-function" studies that aim to render the virus more communicable or virulent.

H5N1 has so far been relatively slow to spread in humans, but the virus has killed more than half of those infected. Of the 608 confirmed human bird flu cases, 359 have ended in death, according to a Nov. 5 statement by the World Health Organization.

Plans for the meeting follow the publication of two controversial studies that genetically modified the H5N1 virus to be more transmissible between ferrets. Such research aims to gain a better understanding of changes that could occur to the virus in nature.

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 the research by teams in the United States and the Netherlands. The National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity later reversed its decision after the scientists submitted additional data.

Meanwhile, a moratorium on corresponding research was implemented in January and has lasted beyond its anticipated 60-day period. A number of flu specialists want to see the curb lifted.

The administration's draft federal funding standards would require potential H5N1 gain-of-function research to address an area of inquiry with major medical implications. Sufficient means would have to exist for limiting and monitoring associated threats, as would indications that similar changes to the virus might occur in nature.

National Institutes of Health officials were not immediately available to comment on how this week's meeting could affect possible revisions to the draft review policy, or on how the proposed terms might affect practices for vetting research involving other sensitive pathogens.

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