Policy & Law
Back in January 2012, the US government announced it was joining with scientists around the world and temporarily suspending research on the deadly pathogen H5N1, also known as avian flu or "bird flu," after an independent review panel found that publishing research results could potentially allow bioterrorists or other attackers to recreate and transmit a more contagious version of the virus on their own. But since international research resumed in January, the US government is looking to get back into studying the virus as well, including potentially funding the development of new, more infectious strains capable of being spread by coughing.
research on H5N1 will resume this year under tighter regulations
Late last week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that US-funded research on H5N1 will resume this year under tighter regulations outlined in new policies developed in collaboration with the global scientific community. The US government wants to continue its efforts to develop a vaccine for H5N1 "to prepare for a possible pandemic," and these efforts could make H5N1 spread more easily and be more vaccine resistant.
these efforts could make H5N1 spread more easily and be more vaccine resistant
Hence the two new policies, one on bird flu specifically, and a broader one proposed last year which will initially apply to H5N1 research and 14 other agents and toxins, among them, anthrax, the ebola virus, and botulinum neurotoxin. Scientists who receive funding from the government to study these deadly agents are required to come up with a "risk mitigation plan," outlining how they will reduce risk of their research results being used to harm the public. Scientists must report such research to the federal agencies that fund them, or to the National Institutes of Health if there is no federal funding source.
The White House has opened the broader policy to public comment over the next two months, but NIH director Francis Collins seems confident that it's the right approach, issuing a statement saying "the policy aims to preserve the benefits of life sciences research while minimizing the risk of misuse."
Outside of the lab, bird flu remains a persistent problem, with a new case reported on a farm in Germany just this month. According to the World Health Organization, so far there have been 367 human deaths worldwide out of 620 cases of H5N1.
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