A health official culls chickens on a poultry farm in a village on the outskirts of Katmandu, Nepal. Chickens suspected of being infected with H5N1 bird flu were found in the area in October.
Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images
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.
Such work has been on hold since January, when dozens of flu researchers around the world voluntarily agreed to a pause that was originally supposed to last 60 days. The move came in response to fears that NIH-funded researchers in two labs had created contagious forms of H5N1 bird flu virus that could potentially cause a pandemic in people, if the contagious germs escaped or fell into the wrong hands.
But researchers say the moratorium has stopped work that’s vital for understanding how flu viruses found in animals can jump into humans and start a dangerous pandemic. They say these studies are needed to help public health officials get ready for that threat.
The NIH has just concluded a public meeting to discuss the benefits and risks. Scientists, public health experts, and security specialists from around the world were also asked to weigh in on a proposed set of criteria that the NIH would use in the future to decide what kinds of experiments could be funded.
The government is accepting comments on that draft policy until January 10, and officials indicated that a final version could come soon after. “This isn’t something that could be drawn out over a very long period of time,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a media briefing after the conference.
He said federally funded flu researchers have indicated that they plan to quickly submit proposals for experiments so they can be reviewed under the new system. “As soon as we finalize it, get the comments, and get it solid as an official framework, then we can just very nicely, I hope, take these proposals as they come in,” Fauci said.
In addition to this new NIH review system, federally funded flu researchers also need the government to indicate what laboratory safety measures should be required for these types of experiments. That issue has been under review and a decision is expected soon. “That’s also on an expedited timeline as well,” says Amy Patterson, director of the office of science policy at the NIH.
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