AILSA CHANG, HOST:
China is grappling with an outbreak of a new respiratory virus. Scientists thinks that it's an animal virus that mutated and started sickening people. This kind of species jump is important to understand, but some lab experiments on animal viruses have been controversial. Critics say the work takes bad viruses and makes them even worse. As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, they say if the government is going to support this work, it needs to be far more open about why.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: If you want to know what a virus circulating out in nature is capable of, one thing you can do is bring it into the lab and start tweaking its genes to see what changes, if any, might make it more deadly or more capable of infecting people and spreading from person to person. That information would let public health officials prepare for real infectious disease threats, but Tom Inglesby says this kind of research also has risks.
TOM INGLESBY: I'm worried about both accidents and the potential for misuse.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Inglesby is director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He says if an altered virus got out of the lab...
INGLESBY: My own view is that we're risking the potential for a large-scale outbreak, epidemic, even pandemic with some of this work.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's not the only one with these worries. There was a huge public debate over this kind of science. Experiments were put on hold for years while officials grappled with whether and how to go forward. Then...
INGLESBY: About a year ago, the government resumed funding experiments that are called enhanced potential pandemic pathogen research projects.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The government did it after unveiling a new review process for deciding what projects get funding. But Inglesby says this process happens behind closed doors by people who aren't publicly named, and officials aren't publicly disclosing the reasoning behind their decisions.
INGLESBY: It would be valuable for the government to explain its decisions and what it sees as the benefits of this kind of work and what it sees as the risks.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So far, two proposals have made it through the review process. Carrie Wolinetz is acting chief of staff to the director of the National Institutes of Health. She says both of those projects were funded by the NIH, and both focus on bird flu.
CARRIE WOLINETZ: One of the things these scientists are studying is, how does the flu virus jump between species? - because that's one of the important things that we need to understand to help us understand the evolution of the flu virus.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She said to find out if any additional projects were being considered, I'd have to check with the Department of Health and Human Services, which does these special reviews.
WOLINETZ: It's a little bit tricky because all of these discussions, of course, are happening before funding decisions are made. And under current rules and regulations in the government, those conversations, pre-award conversations, are protected.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It turns out there is another research project currently under review, but no information about it is publicly available. Tomorrow, the NIH will hold a meeting to consider whether the high stakes of this kind of research demand more openness. The agency is seeking feedback from a group of outside advisers called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.
WOLINETZ: It's an opportunity to ask the question of, are we doing this appropriately? Are we, in fact, being correct in our balancing of transparency and security or any other considerations?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Because officials know the debate over these experiments isn't going away. And as the outbreak in China shows, neither is the threat to the public from newly emerging viruses.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.