February 9, 2013

Influenza Research Moratorium Formally Ends, But Not in U.S.

The research moratorium called by influenza researchers following published experiments that created novel and possibly pandemic-capable genetically engineered H5N1 influenza viruses has formally ended (see here and here for more background). This voluntary halt in research on highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 began in January 2012, and was described as “a pause to this important research to provide time to explain the public health benefits of this work, to describe the measures in place to minimize possible risks, and to enable organizations and governments around the world to review their policies (for example, on biosafety, biosecurity, oversight, and communication) regarding these experiments.” The new statement supports the resumption of such research in countries where the biosafety and biosecurity concerns have been addressed. “Scientists should not restart their work in countries where, as yet, no decision has been reached on the conditions for H5N1 virus transmission research.” The U.S. is one of those countries. In fact, the NIH has undertaken a review of its policies for conducting dual-use research, which would include these influenza virus experiments. The new statement also notes international disagreement regarding the level of physical containment for the research, whether BL-3 or BL-4 (Canada). The U.S.-based H5N1 experiments have been conducted in less secure BL-3 facilities. Currently HHS has been collecting comments on the possible designation of H5N1 (or specifically HPAI H5N1) as a select agent; the practical consequences would be that laboratories would need to register with the government and follow strict CDC regulations for the physical conditions in which experiments with these viruses could occur. There is professional disagreement regarding the advisability of a select agent classification. The NIH has promised to release finalized guidelines for funding such research in the near future, which will be the result of a more detailed look by NIH at its own funding policies. The controversial research in both H5N1 publications was supported with grants from NIH.

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