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Some experiments on bird flu are causing an international uproar. Scientists recently took a bird flu virus and altered its genes. There are fears that if this virus ever escapes lab or falls into the wrong hands, it could cause a devastating pandemic in people.
SIEGEL: The World Health Organization is holding a meeting tomorrow in Geneva to discuss what to do. And in the meantime, flu scientists have declared a 60-day moratorium on this line of research. It's almost unheard of for biologists to halt their work in this way.
But as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, there is one famous precedent.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Back in early 1970s, scientists were taking the first steps towards what we now know as genetic engineering. Nobel Prize winner Paul Berg had figured out how to splice together DNA from different organisms.
DR. PAUL BERG: The experiment I was doing was actually constructing first recombinant DNA that anybody had ever made. And it was an entire set of genes from a tumor-causing virus attached to a small mini chromosome that can replicate and propagate in a bacterium.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This is totally new. And for some people, it was disturbing.
BERG: My first reaction to when people said: Hey, you're doing this crazy experiment. You're potentially spreading cancer genes, et cetera, et cetera. I said, nonsense.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But Berg came to realize he couldn't say there was no risk. And the tools were advancing rapidly. More and more people were doing this kind of work. So Berg and some colleagues took an unusual step. They asked scientists around world to hold off on certain experiments, until there was a consensus on how to do them safely. In February of 1975, over 100 researchers gathered at Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California.
DR. PAUL KEIM: They developed guidelines and policy for how to do that research, and we still live with many of those guidelines and policies today.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Paul Keim is a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University. He chairs a government advisory committee that recently reviewed the bird flu research that will be discussed in Geneva tomorrow. For Keim, this is a moment just like Asilomar - scientists are doing work that could have unintended consequences for the public.
KEIM: The parallels are that, you know, there's so much uncertainty here. The potential for grave harm is obvious to most of us. So, the thought is why not pause here, think about what we're doing.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's not only one to make link to Asilomar. Paul Berg says, for him, the bird flu situation is like the 1970's all over again.
BERG: I see in an amazing similarity.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says there is a game-changing scientific discovery, then concerns, then a moratorium, then calls for an international meeting. But others say this isn't history repeating itself. Maxine Singer is a prominent molecular biologist who also was one of the organizers of Asilomar.
DR. MAXINE SINGER: There's a whole bunch of differences actually that make the situation that we faced in '73 and '75 really quite different from this.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says Asilomar was forward-looking and focused on the potential risks of hypothetical experiments that scientists hadn't yet done. This time, worrisome viruses have already been made.
SINGER: Now we're talking about locking barn door after the horses have gone. So that's one big difference.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And a big part of today's debate is whether to try to limit who gets to see key details of those experiments. Singer says discussions about bird flu research seem to be happening in closed-door meetings, convened by government-level agencies. But Asilomar was open to reporters and was organized by the scientists themselves.
Stanley Falkow is a prominent microbiologist who also was at Asilomar. He says the current situation feels very different to him, too. This time, he notes, scientists agreed to a pause in their work only after a public outcry.
DR. STANLEY FALKOW: My view is that they're doing it grudgingly.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: No one is sure what come out of meeting in Geneva. But Falkow notes that society supports scientists and give some tremendous freedom in their pursuit of knowledge.
FALKOW: And there's an implied trust. And I think in part what's happened has shaken trust of many people.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Falkow says it's not enough for scientists to think that what they're doing is fine. To him, one of the lessons of Asilomar is to make sure public will think that too.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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