Public Health


Today, the National Institutes of Health in Maryland will hold a second day of talks about whether and how to continue some controversial experiments. Back in January, scientists agreed to temporarily stop research that was creating new forms of bird flu because critics said that work was too dangerous. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that the NIH officials are now seeking input from scientists and from the public.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The scientists, national security experts, and public health workers in this auditorium have come here from all over - from the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Italy, Indonesia, Vietnam.

HARVEY FINEBERG: The subject of this meeting literally affects every individual in the world.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Harvey Fineberg is helping to run this conference. He's president of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

FINEBERG: Every citizen in every country has a stake in the research that will or will not go forward with respect to these highly pathogenic agents.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: These pathogenic agents are altered forms of the bird flu virus known as H5N1. H5N1 is widespread in poultry in parts of Asia and the Middle East. It rarely infects people. But over half of those who are known to have gotten sick have died. Public health experts worry that the virus might mutate, begin spreading from person to person, and start a pandemic.

Last year, NIH-funded researchers showed that certain genetic mutations could indeed make H5N1 spread easily between ferrets - the lab stand-in for people. But when word got out that scientists had created these mutant viruses, there was an uproar. Anthony Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

ANTHONY FAUCI: There was an explosion of reaction, sometimes bordering on the very extreme as shown by this editorial from the New York Times - an engineered doomsday.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So flu virologists around the world agreed to temporarily hold off on this kind of research. Ron Fouchier is with Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. His lab did some of the key experiments. He thinks it's essential to get back to work.

RON FOUCHIER: In my opinion, it is undesirable and perhaps even unresponsible to maintain a ban on this follow-up research.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says what's learned will help public health experts spot an emerging pandemic and develop vaccines.

FOUCHIER: All of this research is aimed to prevent flu pandemics or to mitigate their impact if they cannot be prevented altogether.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But others aren't convinced. Thomas Inglesby is with the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He says, if an engineered bird flu virus fell into the wrong hands or escaped the lab, it could kill millions.

THOMAS INGLESBY: Once novel flu gets going in the population, it's unlikely we could stop it. Incubation time is short, so it spreads like wildfire.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He thinks the moratorium should continue. But if the NIH decides that it will fund more research on altered forms of H5N1, Inglesby thinks everyone should acknowledge the risks.

INGLESBY: I think we should also proceed in unprecedented biosafety conditions and with international agreements on how to proceed.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This question of the moratorium can't be decided at this meeting. Not all the researchers who signed onto it are funded by NIH. But what NIH says and does is influential, so what comes of this meeting could be important. Officials have drafted a set of proposed criteria to help them decide whether and when to fund this kind of research in the future. One of the reasons they're holding this conference is to see what people think.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.


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