bird flu

New rules on mutant bird flu research stir debate

by Tanya Lewis,  |  published on February 25, 2013

Controversy erupted in 2011 when two researchers performed experiments on a highly transmissible form of bird flu virus. Now, the U.S. government has announced new policies for reviewing such potentially risky research before it gets funded.

The U.S. government released a framework Feb. 21, detailed in a forum in the journal Science, for determining whether to fund research that could create a version of the H5N1 bird flu virus that could infect mammals by airborne droplets.

The recent bird flu experiments sought to do exactly that, in the hope of understanding how such a virus might evolve in the wild. The White House also put out a draft policy yesterday to help research institutions assess so-called “dual use” research that could do both good and harm. Some people fear the mutant virus and other pathogens could escape the lab or be used as a bioweapon by terrorists.

About 600 confirmed human infections of the H5N1 virus have occurred since 2003, roughly 60 percent of which were fatal (though this number might be inflated). The bug does not pass easily between humans, but if it were to acquire that ability, it could potentially cause a pandemic.

Risky research

The first of the two policies, a framework for dealing with research on highly infectious strains of H5N1 virus, requires that funding agencies and the Department of Health and Human Services both review the research. The document lays out seven criteria that must be met in order to grant funding. For instance, the research must be done only on viruses that could evolve naturally, and the risks to lab workers and the public must be manageable.

Some scientists feel the framework is a step in the right direction. “I think the government has done a good job here in terms of framing the discussion,” virologist Michael Imperiale of the University of Michigan told LiveScience. The framework document provides “a mechanism for reviewing this type of research before it gets funded that I think is fair and comprehensive,” Imperiale said.

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