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Last month, scientists around the world agreed to temporarily halt certain genetic experiments with bird flu viruses. More than three weeks of that 60-day moratorium have already passed. And the scientific community is in the midst of a fierce debate about what needs to happen next.
The suspension of the research came in response to fears that researchers had created dangerous new germs that could cause a devastating pandemic in people if they ever escaped the lab or fell into the wrong hands.
The World Health Organization has invited a small group of experts to Geneva to grapple with the most urgent questions posed by these lab-altered viruses in a closed-door meeting that will start Feb. 16 and last two days.
"The WHO was actually asked by a number of different parties, you know, will you become involved in the process and help try to facilitate a more global approach to the discussions?" says Keiji Fukuda, a WHO official and an expert on pandemic flu.
The controversy centers on experiments to understand the nature of an influenza virus known as H5N1. Out in nature, this virus circulates among wild birds. The bird flu rarely makes people sick, but when it does it can be deadly. More than 500 people are known to have fallen ill, and over half of them died.
The virus doesn't easily spread between people. Still, public health experts wondered: Could this bird flu ever evolve in a way that would make it contagious in humans?
To try to answer that question, scientists in the Netherlands recently did a lab experiment that modified genes in the virus. The result was a new germ that could pass through the air between ferrets and kill them — and ferrets are the laboratory stand-in for people.
Those findings alarmed experts who reviewed the studies. They worry this virus could potentially cause a catastrophic pandemic if it got out.
"We don't know yet how infectious this particular virus is to humans, what it would do once it were in humans from a clinical disease standpoint, but we have no margin for error here," says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, who notes that flu viruses can swiftly travel around the globe.
He says until scientists understand the true risks posed by these viral agents, "it would be foolish to not take this very seriously."
Osterholm serves on the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a committee that advises the government on biological research that could be misused. Late last year, it reviewed this flu study and similar study led by a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The committee took the unprecedented step of recommending that some details of these biological studies be kept from the public, so that no one could use them as recipes for new bioweapons.
That recommendation was the start of what's turning into a massive fight in the science community. Some virologists say the potential risks have been vastly overstated. They bristle at the idea of putting restrictions on basic research aimed at improving public health.
"On a scientific basis, these experiments are worth doing and they're not dangerous," says Vincent Racaniello, a virologist at Columbia University in New York. "If you balance the danger versus the amount of information you get, I think my view is you go forward."
He thinks other labs should repeat the studies and build on the results, which should be published for all to see. And he disagrees with those who want these viruses moved to super-secure labs — the kind of places that store smallpox and Ebola.
For now, scientists have stopped all experiments using these viruses, plus any genetic work that could create more like them. Publication is also on hold.
"We have viruses which exist, we have manuscripts which have been written, we have a moratorium which was declared voluntarily by the researchers, and so given all of that, you know, what are some of the practical steps that we can take?" says Fukuda.
He says the WHO invited 22 people to this week's meeting. Participants will include researchers directly involved in conducting the studies, experts who have reviewed the findings, and editors who may publish papers describing the experiments.
The National Institutes of Health, which funded the flu work, is sending Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University, acting chair of the NSABB, will attend to represent that committee.
Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of the journal Science, says he is unable to attend and will send a deputy editor. His journal wants to publish, in some form, a manuscript that describes the work done in the Netherlands. The meeting's organizers want to let everyone there see the full, unredacted version of that report, says Alberts, but they plan to only give out paper copies that have to be returned at the end of the session.
"On the one hand, obviously, the international community has to know exactly what's involved," says Alberts. "But on the other hand, we have to be careful about not jeopardizing the possibility to restrict the information."
One way of restricting the information would be to publish the research without key details, and devise a system to give the sensitive information only to legitimate researchers who need it. Top science officials in the U.S. government are now trying to create such a system. But Alberts says making something like that work is going to have to be an international effort.
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