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Not Quite Ready for Deadly Bird Flu Research

By Mary Duenwald
January 23, 2013 3:22 PM EST

Is it safe for scientists to go back to the lab and resume their studies of deadly H5N1 bird flu viruses?

Not yet. The U.S. National Institutes of Health is wisely putting together new safety guidelines, and they won't be final for several more weeks. 

Even so, today, the virologists whose bird flu research raised alarms to begin with announced that they, along with a few dozen colleagues, are lifting their year-long self-imposed moratorium and getting back to work. After all, they say, other countries have determined that it's safe, and the work is too important to delay any longer. Why should science wait for a green light from the U.S.?

Keep in mind that the U.S. is by far the world's largest funder of virus research. Even these scientists -- who in their separate labs engineered novel forms of H5N1 that are transmissible among mammals -- have NIH funding and won't be able to resume all their own work until the U.S. says they can. 

A better reason to wait for the guidelines, though, is that they are needed to minimize the risk that an engineered virus might escape a laboratory -- accidentally, via an infected worker, or intentionally, through the work of terrorists taking advantage of the research. 

Discussions in the past year have raised the question of whether the government should support any research aimed at making deadly viruses more transmissible, or in any other way more dangerous. The scientists involved rightly point out that their work is crucial to making sure the world is prepared for any lethal, communicable bird flu virus that nature might create.

Nevertheless, governments must take every precaution.

Bloomberg View has argued that review procedures are needed for research on certain scary viruses. In that regard, the guidelines that have been drafted by the NIH and sent to the Department of Health and Human Services are promising. They would require that before financing any such research, the NIH first determine that its benefits clearly outweigh its risks and that all risks are kept to a minimum.

As Marc Lipsitch and Barry Bloom of the Harvard School of Public Health have pointed out, standards should encompass not only physical containment of viruses but also laboratory competence and procedures for monitoring safety.

Only then can scientists and the public be assured that that H5N1 studies are significantly less dangerous than the threat they aim to address.

(Mary Duenwald is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)

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