The U.S. government will soon be asking university officials to comment on how best to implement recently released dual use research rules  at the university level, a senior U.S. science official announced today.
"What needs to be ironed out and will be ironed out is how [dual use reviews are] sorted out at the institutional level," Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said at a workshop sponsored by the National Academies  in Washington, D.C.
The announcement marks the latest U.S. response to the controversy over a pair of studies that show how to make the H5N1 avian influenza virus transmissible in mammals. On 29 March, the government released a new policy  that requires federal agencies that fund unclassified research to systematically review the potential risks of studies involving 15 "high consequence" pathogens and toxins, including H5N1. The reviews are designed to reduce the risks associated with dual use research of concern (DURC) that could be used for good or harm. The policy also requires the funders, scientists, and institutions to work together to develop plans for mitigating risk, including possibly altering the research or withholding research results.
At the time, Fauci and other officials made it clear that although the new policy applied to only federal agencies, they expected that academic institutions and individual scientists funded by the government would play a growing role in DURC reviews. In particular, past recommendations from a variety of expert panels have suggested that university institutional biosafety committees (IBCs), originally established to oversee the safety of studies involving recombinant DNA techniques, take a bigger role in helping to identify DURC studies before they begin.
Fauci did not discuss the details of the new policy, which he said should be released for public comment "soon." But he said officials will be seeking input on what university-level review practices would be "practical and impractical. ... We don't want to have a government policy that can't be implemented. … What we are talking about is the path forward."
University groups have expressed concerns about how the new DURC policy will be implemented and how disagreements between scientists and the government might be resolved. Fauci has said that he expects "a lot of constructive conversation" about the new rules.