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02/21/2013

New rules rolled out for high-risk research on deadly viruses

Avianflu
Source: THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, CDC - Cynthia Goldsmith, Jackie Katz, Sharif Zaki

Today, the U.S. government released a proposed policy framework around "dual-use research of concern" (an unwieldy term that is much more fun to pronounce by its acronym, pronounced "derk") -- essentially, well-meaning research that could be misused for bioterrorism or other nefarious purposes. A new framework was also released to provide oversight for experiments involving dangerous strains of the avian flu (or H5N1).

The new rules stem directly from the avian flu research controversy that erupted in late 2011 and prompted a year-long research moratorium that was finally lifted last month. In a nutshell, two research papers -- both funded by the United States government -- took an already-scary virus, the avian flu H5N1 virus, and made it even more terrifying by genetically modifying the pathogen to become airborne. (The finer details are more nuanced and complex, of course, and anyone interested in learning more can check out Science's excellent reporting of the issue).

The controversy was a major wake-up call. Everyone suddenly realized that -- in our scary new world of fast-developing technologies and legitimate terrorism fears -- new rules were urgently needed to rethink what kind of research should, or should not, be done.

Which takes us to today. At noon, government officials spoke to reporters in a teleconference, explaining the new policy and why dual-use research is necessary.

"If the (H5N1) virus were to acquire the ability to transmit efficiently among humans it could result in a major pandemic -- and in fact, recent surveillance studies indicate this is a real possibilty," said Dr. Amy Patterson, science policy associate director for the National Institutes of Health. "Therefore further understanding this virus is a public health imperative."

The new avian flu framework means that scientists who wish to experiment with H5N1 viruses that are air transmissible between mammals will now have to jump through extra hoops to get funding:

  1. 1) Research is assessed for scientific merit (this is a standard step)
  2. 2) An assessment of potential dual-use concern (another standard step, though this one was introduced in March as a response to the avian flu controversy)
  3. 3) Research is assessed for criteria under the new framework
  4. 4) A "department-level review" which "will bring a higher level of scrutiny," according to Patterson

Of course, the new framework is no magic bullet and this issue will continue to be challenging. Part of what scientists will need to explain is the potential benefits of their risky research -- something that is impossible to really know. There is no telling where any research could lead -- and severing one line of inquiry could rob the world of scientific breakthroughs down the road.

"We want to make sure that we don't shortchange our future," Patterson said.


Jennifer Yang is the Toronto Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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