STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK. The U.S. government could soon be back in the business of funding some controversial bird flu virus experiments. The research here is aimed at understanding how bird flu might mutate and lead to a pandemic in people. Long-time listeners to this program have been following this story. The studies were put on hold for more than a year after critics said the work was too dangerous. Now authorities have unveiled a new policy for deciding whether experiments like these should go forward. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The two experiments that caused the uproar involved the bird flu virus H5N1. Scientists had created mutant forms of this virus, and some biosecurity experts said the viruses could cause a pandemic in people if they ever got out of the lab. Both studies were funded by the U.S. government. One was done in the Netherlands and the other here in Madison, Wisconsin.
REBECCA MORRIS: OK. So now we're inside the secure perimeter.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Rebecca Morris is with the University of Wisconsin, and she's leading a rare tour of the lab that did this work. This place has specially sealed concrete walls at least a foot thick. To enter, Morris pushes a button next to a huge metal door. We wait for a light to turn green as we listen to a whooshing sound. A system is making adjustments to ensure that no air and nothing in the air can escape.
MORRIS: So right now we're going from a room - there's high pressure in this room and there's less air in that room. So the air is going in there.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: We go through this door, then another, into the room where workers wearing full-body protective suits would put on their air-purifying respirators. An employee switches one on to show how it adds to the noise.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Unintelligible) ventilation system and this respirator, this where (unintelligible).
GREENFIELDBOYCE: We go through another sealed door and finally reach a suite of small labs. Inside one is a locked freezer that contains vials of influenza virus, including some of the genetically altered bird flu viruses that have been making headlines. Wild H5N1 bird flu, found in poultry in Asia and the Middle East, rarely infects people and doesn't spread from person to person. But the manmade viruses here in this lab can spread through coughs and sneezes between ferrets, the lab's stand-in for people. Virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka runs this lab. I ask if he ever takes these viruses out of his freezer.
YOSHIHIRO KAWAOKA: No.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So they've just been sitting in that freezer for over a year?
KAWAOKA: More than a year. Yeah, right. Because after we announced the moratorium, then we just stopped.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Dozens of flu experts around the world agreed to hold off on this type of work to allow time for a public debate. Last month, though, they declared that the voluntary pause was over. Scientists in the Netherlands have already restarted, using money from sources other than the U.S. government. But researchers like Kawaoka, who rely on federal funding, have had to wait as officials finalize new policies for deciding what kind of studies can be done and under what conditions. Kawaoka says the moratorium and this whole experience has meant lost time in terms of getting ready for the threat of a naturally occurring pandemic.
KAWAOKA: The viruses are evolving in nature, and if you don't work, you just let the virus evolve.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yesterday, officials with the National Institutes of Health finally issued their new decision-making framework. From now on, this type of research has to go through a special review to see if it meets certain criteria. For example, does the experiment address a question of great importance to public health, and is there no other way to answer that question? Some public health experts who've been following this debate say it's good to have this new system but they still have concerns.
MARC LIPSITCH: I worry that the framework might allow experiments with those strains that are scientifically interesting but unlikely to change the way we confront the next flu pandemic.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Marc Lipsitch is an epidemiologist with the Harvard School of Public Health, who says the work does have risks.
LIPSITCH: I have yet to hear a compelling rationale for why any of the proposed experiments is likely to be the best way to get a vaccine or a realistic way to improve surveillance.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The director of the office of science policy at the National Institutes of Health is Amy Patterson. She says that a lot of this will just come down to a judgment call.
AMY PATTERSON: I don't think that there's any way around that. They're not going to be necessarily black and white decisions that can be made.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says if this review process had existed before the two controversial experiments were done, both would have been approved. But there would have been a lot more upfront discussion about the tricky issues they raised. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.