Research Moratoriums And Recipes For Superbugs: Bird Flu In 2012 : Shots - Health News When scientists figured out how to make the deadly H5N1 virus more contagious, a debate ignited about whether to publish the research and do more experiments. Over the past year, scientists published the contentious work, but they still can't agree on the field's future.
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Research Moratoriums And Recipes For Superbugs: Bird Flu In 2012

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Research Moratoriums And Recipes For Superbugs: Bird Flu In 2012

Research Moratoriums And Recipes For Superbugs: Bird Flu In 2012

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. As we close the curtain on this year, let's look back now on an important development in the world of science. It's the ongoing controversy about experiments on bird flu. These studies created new flu viruses that critics say could potentially cause a deadly pandemic in people if the germs escaped or got into the wrong hands.

Scientists agreed to temporarily stop their work. But what was supposed to be just a 60-day moratorium has lasted all year. Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Ron Fouchier is one of the scientists at the center of this controversy. In January, he and dozens of other flu experts around the world agreed to hold off on certain bird flu experiments. But that doesn't mean he liked the idea.

RON FOUCHIER: I have always been one of the opponents to this moratorium.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Still, his work had created an uproar. National security experts were worried. Biologists couldn't agree. And newspaper headlines were using words like doomsday. Other flu researchers and government officials convinced Fouchier that there had to be a pause.

FOUCHIER: But I've not been a great advocate of it because there is urgency in this type of research.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Fouchier gets funding from the National Institutes of Health to study the bird flu virus H5N1. The virus is widespread in poultry in parts of Asia and the Middle East. Scientists have long wanted to know if it could mutate in a way that would lead to a human pandemic. So Fouchier's lab at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands experimented with the virus and found that indeed certain genetic changes made it spread through the coughs and sneezes of ferrets.

That's the lab's stand-in for people. This discovery provided important new clues about how future pandemics might emerge from nature. But at the same time, the findings were basically the recipe for creating a superflu, one that might kill millions. That's why a panel of government advisers initially recommended against publicly revealing the details of this experiment and another one like it. Paul Keim is a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University, who chaired the panel.

PAUL KEIM: I think the biggest fear that we had was that in fact these experiments were going on without the appropriate public dialogue.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now, for years biologists have talked about the problem of how to handle legitimate science that could be misused to cause harm. But the bird flu research made that question painfully real. Amy Patterson directs the NIH Office of Science Policy.

AMY PATTERSON: It upped the ante, both in terms of what's at stake here in terms of public health and what's at stake here in terms of potential risks. It captured people's attention.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: All year the debate raged over whether the benefits of this research were worth the risks. The World Health Organization held a closed-door meeting of flu experts. Officials tried, unsuccessfully, to find some legal way of giving the key details only to people with the need to know. In the end, science journals did publish full reports describing the studies in detail.

But the research moratorium continued as people asked: Well, now what? Is it back to business as usual? Or is there a line that should not be crossed? The NIH just held a public meeting to discuss whether, and under what conditions, they should fund these kinds of bird flu experiments in the future. Officials have drawn up a set of draft criteria and they want to know what people think.

Fouchier, for one, says it's still unclear to him how decisions will get made.

FOUCHIER: It's critical who is going to do the vetting on this research, who decides what can be done and what cannot be done. If you ask infectious disease specialists about what should be done, you're going to get different answers than if you ask security specialists.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: At the end of the meeting, NIH director Francis Collins said if everything still seems unresolved, that's because this situation is really hard.

FRANCIS COLLINS: If this was a circumstance where there was an easy path forward, where you could simply write down in an afternoon how best to handle this, well, we would have done that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But Collins says this bird flu situation will hopefully get people better prepared for the next time something in biology raises similar concerns.

COLLINS: And if we can get this one right, then the hope is we can go on to some of those other issues undergirded by something more in the way of a foundation than we've previously had.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Because if there's one thing that everyone can agree on, it's that the challenge of potentially dangerous information in biology is not going to go away. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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