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It is highly unusual for a group of scientists to get together and say let's stop our research, but that is what happened earlier this year. Mutant bird flu viruses were headline news. Researchers had created new forms of bird flu that could potentially cause a dangerous pandemic in people, and there was such an outcry that flu experts decided, voluntarily, to put their work on hold. Now, as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, some people argue that the public should have more say in whether the work starts back up.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: So how scared should we be of these mutant bird flu viruses? Scientists can't agree. Some say if these viruses escape the lab, they could potentially kill millions of people. Others say that is an exaggeration and this research is vital to get ready for the very real threat of a naturally occurring pandemic. For months there's been a fierce debate. Are the benefits worth the risks?
That's why there's a lot of interest in a scientific meeting happening next week in New York. Researchers who made the mutant viruses will be there, plus others who signed on to the voluntary moratorium. Anthony Fauci is going. He's head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which funded the controversial experiments. Here's what he said a few weeks ago at a press briefing.
ANTHONY FAUCI: I intend to go there and discuss in some detail with the group the kinds of approaches we can have to try and expedite as quickly as possible the lifting of the moratorium.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But some people ask, what is the hurry? David Relman is a microbiologist at Stanford University. He was part of a group that advised the government on whether the details of the bird flu experiments should be made public.
DAVID RELMAN: There is no particular reason to rush ahead right now, with what might be a very substantial kind of risk.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And so how would you feel if the there's a meeting at the end of July and then they announce that they're lifting the moratorium?
RELMAN: I'd be concerned.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's not the only one who feels that way. Marc Lipsitch is an epidemiologist at Harvard's School of Public Health. He says research on these viruses is potentially valuable.
MARC LIPSITCH: But the risks are not to scientists. The risks are to the world. The risks are that one of these viruses gets out of a laboratory and starts to spread from person to person. And so the people who have something at stake are not the scientific community only.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He thinks there needs to be a much broader conversation.
LIPSITCH: I'm a little disappointed that it hasn't been a very public discussion. It's been very much by flu virologists and flu experts.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I asked one of the organizers of this upcoming flu meeting if I could attend to report to the public on what happens. The answer? No. Adolfo Garcia-Sastre is a scientist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
ADOLFO GARCIA-SASTRE: If we open the meeting to reporters, then there will be too many people. I don't think we can do that.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He said he'd fill me in afterwards. I asked him about the perception that flu virologists are making decisions behind closed doors. He said flu researchers aren't the ones who will be deciding when to lift the moratorium. They're waiting for government officials to tell them if and under what conditions they can go ahead. One of those officials is Anthony Fauci. I asked him why he wanted to, quote, expedite as quickly as possible the lifting of the moratorium. He says when he said that he didn't mean to lift it quickly.
FAUCI: I really meant the expediting of a frank, open, clear discussion, instead of, you know, press-type soundbites back and forth. That's what I meant by expedite. Not that I wanted the moratorium lifted the day after the CEIRS meeting. That's not what I meant.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But how can the public discussion be open when the meeting in New York is closed?
FAUCI: Well you have to - no, no, no, no, no. See, Nell, you have to first start off with one step at a time. If the scientific community isn't even in agreement or even able to articulate with each other what it is they want to do, how are they going to express it in a way that the public can understand what it is they want to do?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But this kind of approach doesn't sit well with folks who want more transparency.
RICHARD ROBERTS: There are plenty of people in the public who are not stupid and are perfectly well able to understand the issues that are involved here and to decide whether or not they think this is a good use of taxpayers' money.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Richard Roberts is a Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist at a company called New England Biolabs. He thinks the moratorium should be continued.
ROBERTS: Until there has been a comprehensive debate about what should happen, not just some behind-closed-doors debate by a group of insiders who have a vested interest in seeing this research continue.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: By that he means not just flu researchers, but the government agencies that funded their work. He says officials need the outside world to think they made good decisions.
ROBERTS: They have such an obvious conflict of interest that they're not able to represent the public.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Fauci says that is just not so. He says the National Institutes of Health has no conflict of interest here.
FAUCI: I mean that's a nice catchword, conflict of interest. But the main mandate is that we really don't have any vested interest. We want to do the right thing. These experiments were done for the thought of protecting the global health. At the time that the experiments were done, it was felt by the program people and by everybody else involved that it was important enough that the benefits of not only doing the experiments, but of openly publishing the experiments, the benefits outweighed the risk.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He points out that a panel of advisers to the government ultimately agreed. Fauci says the public will be able to weigh in on these issues soon, when officials release some details of a new plan for regulating research that poses special risks. But some flu experts say there are bigger questions here that go beyond what's done in any one country, and that they need to be addressed at an international level.
ILARIA CAPUA: The way that I see it is that all the discussions that are ongoing are not really hitting the nail on the head.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Ilaria Capua is a flu researcher in Italy who signed the moratorium. She says if this kind of work continues to get funded and published in the U.S. and Europe, the technology for making mutant flu viruses will get easier and easier, and more and more labs will want to do it.
CAPUA: And then we have a hundred, 200 labs around the world which contain in their freezers influenza viruses of high pathogenicity which are transmissible in humans. Is this what we want? I think we need, you know, to really set up a think tank to decide.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The World Health Organization is planning to have an open meeting next year. In the meantime, that agency has just issued some guidelines saying that because these man-made viruses have the potential to start a pandemic, labs that cannot appropriately control the risks should, quote, refrain from working with them. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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