Voluntary Moratorium On H5N1 Research Ends; Fate Of U.S.-Funded Research Unknown

“Almost a year after they announced it, leading influenza researchers are ending a voluntary moratorium on certain types of controversial experiments involving the H5N1 avian influenza virus,” Science Insider reports (Malakoff, 1/23). “The research touched off a firestorm in 2011 when it became known that two groups, one in the Netherlands and another in the United States, had genetically altered a dangerous bird flu virus to make it more contagious in mammals,” the New York Times recounts (Grady, 1/23). “Originally only for 60 days, the moratorium on the research was intended to allow research funders and public health authorities to create safeguards against such concerns,” USA Today notes (Vergano, 1/23). “In a letter published on Thursday in Nature[and in Science], the lead researchers involved in working on the engineered flu virus said that the pause in research had been useful in that it provided time to communicate the public health benefits of the work and decide how to minimize the risks,” the Guardian writes (Jha, 1/23). “Announcing their decision to resume what they say are risky but essential studies of the avian flu strain, the scientists said the work would only be carried out in the most secure sites in countries that agree it can go ahead,” according to Reuters (Kelland, 1/23).

“The U.S. has still not ruled on the fate of the research by labs in this country or by those receiving U.S. funding,” but “investigators in the Netherlands, Canada, China and elsewhere can now return to their studies of how H5N1 could mutate to create a human pandemic,” Scientific American writes (Harmon, 1/23). “The U.S. is in the process of finalizing criteria to determine what bird flu projects it will fund, said [Anthony] Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, based in Bethesda, Maryland,” Bloomberg reports, adding, “Once those criteria are established, the NIH will begin reviewing research requests on a case-by-case basis and let those that meet the safety framework to proceed, he said” (Lopatto, 1/24). “Although the U.S. government is still considering what to do about this issue, researchers around the world did not want to wait, [Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands] says, in part because officials have been unclear about how much longer their decision-making process will take,” NPR’s “Shots” blog notes (Greenfieldboyce, 1/23).

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