Flu Redux

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

A U.S. government advisory panel today opens a 2-day reexamination of two controversial flu studies that will include presentations from the scientists who led the studies and a classified briefing from U.S. intelligence analysts.

Late last year, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) had recommended that two science teams delete key details from papers submitted to Science and Nature that describe how researchers made the H5N1 avian influenza virus more transmissible between mammals, possibly providing a blueprint for starting a flu pandemic. That decision sparked controversy, and in January flu researchers—including the leaders of the two research teams, Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical College in the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison—announced a 60-day moratorium on many kinds of studies involving the virus. In February, a second panel of 22 experts convened by the World Health Organization rejected NSABB's conclusions and argued that the papers should be published in full. Then, on 29 February, U.S. officials surprised many observers by announcing that they were asking NSABB's 23 voting members to reconsider their unanimous opinion in light of "new data" and "clarification" of old data that suggested that at least one of the lab-created viruses is less dangerous than initially believed. Some NSABB members, however, told ScienceInsider that they were skeptical that new information would change their recommendation, although they promised to come to today's meeting with open minds.

The reconsideration comes amid continuing global debate over the wisdom of fully publishing the two studies, and how to safely proceed with future H5N1 flu research. Yesterday, two NSABB members—Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and David Relman of Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California—reiterated their view that the studies should not be fully published in an article published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. That view was challenged in an accompanying article co-authored by Fouchier, who led one of the two studies that NSABB is reviewing. A third essay, by Nicole Bouvier, an influenza researcher at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, concludes that the controversy highlights the need for the scientific community to develop better methods for handling so-called dual-use research that could be used for good or evil.

Meanwhile, on 26 March, Fouchier said that he expects the H5N1 research moratorium, which was set to expire on 20 March, to end sometime next month. Fouchier made the comments during a podcast interview with virologist Vincent Racaniello of Columbia University, publisher of the Virology Blog. Fouchier also said that the Dutch government had reaffirmed its view that H5N1 research could be safely carried out in biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) laboratories; some critics have argued that the mammal-transmissible strains should be restricted to BSL-4 laboratories, which have stricter safety and containment requirements. Canada has said it will restrict research on such engineered strains to BSL-4 laboratories. Meanwhile, also on 26 March, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control restated its support for full publication of the two studies.

It is not clear when NSABB members (and the group's 18 nonvoting ex officio members from federal agencies) will make any new recommendation, which officially goes to the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius. Last year, U.S. officials waited about a month to publicly announce NSABB's initial recommendation.

It is also not clear when U.S. officials will release a proposal on how to regulate dual-use research funded by the U.S. government. National Institutes of Health officials had initially said that proposal would be made public by early March.

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