DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Later this week there will be a closed-door meeting at the National Institutes of Health. On the agenda, controversial bird flu experiments. Scientists altered the bird flu virus in a way that might make it capable of spreading between people, and there's currently a huge fight over whether the details of this work should be kept secret because of fears it could provide a recipe for a biological weapon.
One big question hovering over the controversy is why didn't anyone tackle these issues before the scientists did their experiments? Well, NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that it looks like some people actually did.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: It is not news that biology can have a dark side. Ever since 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, biologists have talked about the dual-use dilemma, the idea that legitimate research might have the potential to cause harm in the wrong hands.
Take the recent bird flu experiments. Scientists wanted to understand if a flu virus currently out there in birds could mutate and start to spread between people. The researchers discovered that certain genetic tweaks did make the virus spread through the coughs and sneezes of ferrets, the lab's stand-in for people.
And when word of this got out last year, it caused an uproar. Here's Tom Inglesby with the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburg Medical Center last November.
TOM INGLESBY: People should not be in the business of making viruses more contagious than they already are and showing others how to copy that experimental work.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Since then, a government advisory committee said not to publish the full details of the work. Researchers declared a moratorium, the World Health Organization hastily arranged an international conference. This week, government advisors are again being convened by the NIH. Their meeting will feature a classified briefing from the intelligence community. No one knows what will happen next.
So how did we get here? Could this controversy have been predicted? I called the University of Wisconsin - Madison, which did one of the two flu studies that have raised concerns. Rebecca Moritz works at its biological safety office. She said, before the research was done, it got routine safety reviews by something called the Institutional Biosafety Committee, or IBC. And she said:
REBECCA MORTIZ: In the meeting minutes, it does say that there was a dual-use discussion. I don't know the specifics of that discussion, but there was one.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It happened in June of 2009. Susan West is a microbiologist who currently chairs the IBC. She was at the meeting when dual-use came up in the context of the flu research.
SUSAN WEST: I don't remember the exact things. I think we did consider that it was probably - would come under that category, but we did not see that there were any safety issues associated with doing it with the containment that's present on campus.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And that's really what you guys are supposed to be looking at, right, basically...
GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...is this research, can it be safety done under the described conditions?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The researcher there who went on to do those experiments is Yoshihiro Kawaoka. In an email, he told NPR he didn't attend this IBC meeting, but heard that dual-use was mentioned. He said, quote, "No one other than the IBC raised issues regarding dual-use since our NIH grant was approved, and the next level of the oversight is the IBC." Unquote.
But university IBCs aren't actually required to consider the dual-use question as part of their safety review. In fact, the government currently has no formal mechanism to screen proposed experiments and identify those that might produce dangerous information.
RUTH FADEN: In the absence of such a structure, people are going to continue to flounder, and not know what they ought to do.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Ruth Faden is a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University. She serves on an influential panel that issued a report on the dual-use problem in 2004. It recommended that the government set up a mandatory screening system and give higher risk proposals special oversight. Since then, there's been lots of talk about dual-use and efforts to educate scientists. But Faden says that's not enough.
FADEN: This is not a problem any one person can solve. It's hard to ask people to do the responsible thing if they don't have an environmental system that supports them - knowing what is the right thing and then being able to do it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The other controversial bird flu experiment funded by the NIH took place in the Netherlands. That country also has no formal system to screen for dual use. But in 2007, it's National Academy of Sciences did issue a code of conduct for biosecurity. The goal was to help scientists become more aware of these issues. One of the advisors who helped develop that code was Ron Fouchier, the Dutch virologist whose lab later made the mutant form of bird flu.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.