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U.S. health officials announced plans to permit scientists to continue its research on the infamous and controversial H5N1 bird flu, adding that any discoveries about how the virus could become transmissible should be shared with the scientific community and the public.
The new policy was released Thursday by the National Institute of Health. It specifies that research directed to make the virus more dangerous would be subjected to a more critical level of review. As of now, researchers will have to explicitly define potential benefits to science and health, as well as risks, before they can be eligible for government funding.
The NIH, acting through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is one of the leading sources of funding for H5N1 research.
The virus is currently endemic to bird populations in Asia and the Middle East, and began infecting human beings in the 1990s. The World Health Organisation has since confirmed 620 cases in human beings.
Although it is currently only transmissible from avian to human, public health officials fear a mutation that would allow it to transmit from person to person.
“Further understanding this virus is imperative,” said Amy Patterson, NIH associate director for science policy.
In particular, concerns became more widespread after independent H5N1 experiments conducted in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin resulted in flu strains that could spread through ferrets, which are frequently used as substitutes for humans in the lab.
As the scientists were preparing to publish their results, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked their studies to be redacted to prevent a potential bioweapon from falling into the wrong hands. Since then, dozens of scientists, including the original researchers, have agreed to a voluntary moratorium on publishing research
However, H5N1 scientists, who self-imposed the ban in January, stated they would resume work once governments announced plans to ensure the security of the modified virus.
Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease researcher at University of Minnesota, objects to some of the proposed changes.
“The genie will get out of the bottle,” he said. “If we publish this, it’s right there for everyone to know. Any lab in the world could do the same work.”