Following the conclusion of a two-day meeting at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this week — meant “to gather feedback from flu researchers, others in the science community, and the public on its draft framework for funding H5N1 gain-of-function studies and to continue an international dialogue on issues related to benefits and risks of the research” — “experts anticipated that a voluntary moratorium on work with lab-modified strains that have increased transmissibility might end soon,” CIDRAP News reports (Schnirring, 12/18). “That’s because officials at the National Institutes of Health say they will be moving swiftly to finalize a new process for deciding whether or not to fund proposed experiments that could potentially create more dangerous forms of the bird flu virus H5N1,” NPR’s “Shots” blog notes.
U.S. Government’s Draft Guidance On Funding For H5N1 Research Receives ‘Mixed Reception,’ Science Reports
“Researchers are giving a mixed reception to a draft U.S. government plan to do more stringent funding reviews of certain kinds of H5N1 avian influenza research — and perhaps even require some studies to be kept secret,” Science reports. “The proposal, presented last week at a meeting of the government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) in Bethesda, Maryland, is the latest fallout from the controversy surrounding two studies in which scientists engineered the H5N1 virus, which normally causes deadly infections in birds, to move between mammals, potentially opening the door to a human pandemic,” the magazine continues. The plan contains “seven criteria that a study would have to meet to be eligible for NIH funding,” the magazine notes and includes reaction from several researchers. According to Science, “NIH says it will soon release for public comment a white paper that details the plan, and officials will present it at an international workshop on H5N1 research that HHS is hosting in Bethesda on 17 and 18 December” (Malakoff, 12/7).
NSABB Calls For Global Guidelines For Conducting, Communicating Research Involving Dangerous Pathogens
NewScientist reports on the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity’s (NSABB) recommendation that revised versions of two controversial studies on H5N1 avian flu be published in scientific journals, reversing its previous recommendation that the studies only be published if certain details were withheld. According to the news service, dissent among the board members over the issue has prompted the committee to “propos[e] talks to draft global guidelines for doing and communicating work involving dangerous pathogens.”
Discussion Of NSABB Recommendation To Publish Controversial Bird Flu Studies To Continue In London Meeting
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity’s (NSABB) “reversal on publishing two controversial H5N1 studies is poised to shift discussions on the topic that continue in London this week, as more participants in the debate weigh in following the March 30 announcement,” CIDRAP News reports (Schnirring, 4/2). But Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University, who is the acting chair of the panel, stressed on Monday that the “recommendation that two controversial papers on bird flu be published in full is not a reversal of the stand it took last year out of concerns over terrorism,” Reuters writes. “‘We had new information, confidential information, about benefits of this research, and we also had confidential information about the risks involved,’” Keim said, according to the news service (Kelland/Begley, 4/2).
“White House science adviser John Holdren has replied [.pdf] to questions asked last month by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) about how the Obama Administration has handled the controversy surrounding two studies that showed how to make the H5N1 avian influenza virus transmissible between mammals,” ScienceInsider reports. On March 1, “Sensenbrenner — a former head of the House of Representatives committees on science and the judiciary, and currently vice chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, sent a ‘fact-finding letter’ [.pdf] to Holdren” asking a “number of questions about how the government reviews potential ‘dual-use research of concern’ (DURC) that might be used for good or evil,” the news service writes.
“[T]he controversy over the research into the genetic modification of the H5N1 flu virus, finally approved for publication, should offer a reminder of the importance of debate” over dual-use technology, a Nature editorial states. “[D]ual-use basic research is a special case because its implications, for good and bad, are often viewed with the greatest clarity by only a small minority of people,” and often only “[t]he scientists involved (and they are increasingly specialists in very small fields) … can fully understand the risks posed by a line of research,” according to the editorial. “There are disadvantages to leaving it up to outsiders to initiate debate about risks, benefits and ethics,” the editorials states, noting three disadvantages, including the risk of misconceptions and a lack of knowledge about how to handle some research.
Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center, “[t]he Dutch scientist at the center of the controversy over recent bird flu experiments, says that his team applied for government permission today to submit a paper describing their research to a science journal,” NPR’s health blog “Shots” reports, adding, “The Dutch government has asserted that the studies, which describe how to make bird flu virus more contagious, fall under regulations that control the export of weapons technology.” According to the news service, “He feels the government’s actions amount to censorship and has previously has said he did not want to apply for an export permit, because it would set a precedent” (Greenfieldboyce, 4/24). “Fouchier says that by conceding to the government’s request while continuing to contest the need for an export permit, he hopes to have found an acceptable compromise,” Nature writes.
“A new virus from the same family as SARS which sparked a global alert in September has now killed two people in Saudi Arabia, and total cases there and in Qatar have reached six, the World Health Organization said” on Friday, Reuters reports (Kelland, 11/23). “Of the six known cases … two have been fatal” and “[o]nly two were clearly connected,” as they were members of the same family, according to the New York Times (McNeil, 11/23). In 2003, nearly 8,500 people worldwide were infected by SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, and about 900 of those people died, the Associated Press/CBS News reports. “The WHO said it was continuing to work with the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other international health partners to gain a better understanding of the [current] virus,” the news service notes (11/23).
Attendees of a recent WHO meeting that discussed the possible publication in the journals Nature and Science of two studies that modified H5N1 bird flu strains to show the virus could be more easily transmissible among humans decided publication of redacted versions would be ineffective and that “a system for distributing the full paper only to selected individuals would be impossible to set up on any relevant timescale,” a Nature editorial states. Participants also learned “not only does the mammalian transmissibility threat seem greater than previously thought, but also that current avian viruses have some of the mutations identified in the new work,” according to the editorial.
NPR’s health blog “Shots” previews an upcoming WHO-convened meeting to discuss the recent news that two research teams have created H5N1 bird flu strains that are easily transmissible among ferrets, which are used as lab models for humans. Fears that terrorists possibly could use the information prompted the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity in December to request the scientists redact some information prior to publishing their study results and investigators in January to institute a 60-day moratorium on bird flu research, the blog notes.