Global Security Newswire
Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues
NIAID Head Says Bird Flu Research Restrictions Should Remain in Place
A senior U.S. government biodefense official on Tuesday advised the scientific community to continue its voluntary abstention from researching how the avian flu virus can be made transmissible among mammals, arguing that more public debate was needed on the risks and benefits of such highly freighted experiments, Nature reported (see GSN, July 30).
"I strongly recommend that you continue this voluntary moratorium until you can have this open and transparent process addressing the fundamental principles," National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Anthony Fauci said to a gathering of influenza specialists in New York City.
Concerns that scientific studies that resulted in a more virulent H5N1 virus could be misused by bad actors led the National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity in 2011 to advise leaving some data out of research articles written by scientists at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands. Publication of the studies eventually did occur with backing from the U.S. biosecurity board after the two university research teams submitted new data.
The moratorium on similar work was implemented in January and has lasted beyond its anticipated 60-day period. A number of flu specialists want to see the curbs lifted.
Fauci used this week's yearly gathering of the Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance to discuss the government's continuing efforts to draft guidelines that would cover sensitive "dual-use" experiments, which can be used for both positive and negative ends.
A number of National Institutes of Health branches and other federal entities have participated in drafting the new measures, which would dictate the kinds of information scientists and research laboratories will be required to report to the government and precautions for conducting "dual-use" research.
One new action would involve creation of a new federal body with the mission of drafting and administering biosecurity standards for scientists who receive U.S. funding. Fauci said he would like to see the new agency established before the summer is over though he would not commit to that timeline. "I don't control it," he emphasized.
The creation of the new biosecurity agency does not necessarily mean the curbs on bird flu research will be ended. Influenza scientists still need to successfully argue the necessity of further research into boosted H5N1 transmissibility.
Virologist Ron Fouchier, who lead the Erasmus University team's research on bird flu, is an ardent supporter of lifting the moratorium, arguing that more scientific study is needed (see GSN, April 5).
Speaking at the CEIRS meeting in New York, Fouchier cautioned that scientists who do not receive financial support from the U.S. government might not be willing to honor the voluntary moratorium for much longer and that bird flu studies will take place in other nations.
Fauci said he sympathized with flu researchers who feel they have been unfairly maligned in the debate.
"For pandemic flu scientists and the agencies that support them the game has changed," the NIAID head said. "If we want to continue this very important work we must realize that we are part of the process of the policy and decision making, but we are not the only part" (Brendan Maher, Nature I, July 31).
Fouchier, though, said there are already a number of biosecurity and safety regulations in place that his organization has adhered to for years. He called on other influenza scientists to oppose possible new government regulations on dual-use research, Nature reported (Brendan Maher, Nature II, July 31).
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