|Mutating Man-made Viruses|
The end of a historic, 13-month-long global debate over the safety and wisdom of H5N1 avian influenza research may finally be in sight. Speaking after a 2-day meeting here, U.S. government officials said today that they are moving rapidly to adopt a new policy for reviewing certain studies involving the H5N1 virus, in a bid to identify high-risk research before it begins. Scientists said the long-discussed move will enable them to soon lift a landmark moratorium on certain kinds of H5N1 research that they voluntarily imposed in January. The controversy was triggered by two studies that showed how to make the virus transmissible in mammals, potentially sparking a deadly human pandemic. Some influenza researchers working outside the United States said that they may even declare the moratorium dead before the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) adopts its new review policy, expected no earlier than next month.
"I suspect that we will be seeing a lifting of the moratorium on the part of people who are not NIH-funded," Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) said today at the end of a special meeting dedicated to debating, fine-tuning, and test-driving the proposed H5N1 policy. Many of the 39 influenza researchers who arranged the moratorium, he said, have been "patiently waiting for this particular event. … I would not be surprised if they [now say]: 'OK, we've heard it all.' … Some are going to go ahead with their experiments if their country and funder allow it."
"We will be discussing lifting the moratorium very soon. … I'm sure I am going to be seeing lot of e-mails about this tomorrow morning," said virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who led one of the research teams that helped spark the controversy and also helped organize the moratorium. "It would be really nice if all 39 of us agree to lift it, or at least 37 or 38. But I think some researchers outside the United States are going to decide to resume" their paused studies even without unanimity, he said.The latest debate unfolded before some 200 people, including many of the world's top H5N1 researchers, who gathered in an auditorium on the NIH campus to discuss the draft review guidelines. The rules are supposed to help NIH reviewers decide what kinds of H5N1 research the agency should, and should not, fund. Meeting participants also applied the draft, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released on 27 November, to four hypothetical studies.
The moratorium and the new rules apply only to a small range of experiments, so-called "gain-of-function" studies, in which researchers use gene engineering or other techniques to make naturally occurring H5N1 viruses more lethal or able to jump to new hosts, such as mammals. Many researchers say that such studies are essential to understanding how the virus might mutate into a form that is capable of sparking a deadly human pandemic, but others argue that the risks of such research outweigh its benefits. The issue came into stark focus in late 2011, when two research teams created H5N1 viruses capable of infecting ferrets. That work sparked a global controversy over whether the results should be published and whether funding agencies should do more to identify problematic studies before they begin.
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