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Disease Expert Calls For More Talk On Flu Experiments


A different sort of health debate has been playing out at a meeting of flu experts that wraps up today in New York City: what to do about certain lab-altered bird flu viruses. Those who are critical of altering bird flu in the lab worry that these viruses might escape and start a pandemic in people, which is why for months, scientists have voluntarily held off doing any further work.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that the head of the government agency that funded the studies now says these experiments should not begin again without more public discussion.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: It is very rare for scientists to voluntarily stop their research. But that's what happened back in January, because these mutant bird flu viruses sparked an unprecedented debate for biology.

At first, the question was whether the details of how to make these viruses should be made public, or whether that would be like publishing the recipe for a bio-weapon. After closed-door national and international meetings, that issue is settled: science journals recently published the manuscripts. The disagreement now is when and how the work should go forward.


GREENFIELDBOYCE: As NPR reported last week, this meeting was going to be closed to journalists. The night before it started, that decision was reversed, and reporters joined about 200 flu researchers gathered in a hotel ballroom off Times Square. The featured speaker was Anthony Fauci. He's director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which funded the controversial studies. He told the flu experts that they clearly are the most informed about the science.


ANTHONY FAUCI: However, the flu scientific community can no longer be the only players in the discussion of whether the experiments should be done.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He said the public's concerns center on the potential for a lab accident that lets a dangerous flu virus escape.

FAUCI: You will unquestionably lose the battle for public opinion on this one if you ignore these concerns. You can't ignore them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Fauci says this work is necessary to prepare for the threat of a naturally occurring pandemic. He said officials have plans for a broader public consultation in the works.

FAUCI: In the meantime, I strongly recommend that you continue the voluntary moratorium until we can have this open and transparent process.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Researchers in the audience had different reactions. One echoed the call to continue the moratorium. Another proposed restricting the most worrisome experiments to the most secure labs possible. And Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands said he thinks it's time for the research to resume. Later, Fouchier explained why he doesn't want to wait, saying the H5N1 bird flu virus is out there in nature and could mutate at any time.

RON FOUCHIER: And we need to do research to really get a good feel for how big the risk is and what we can do about it, and we can't sit and wait two years before we continue this research.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Fouchier's lab did one of the recent bird flu experiments with funding from the American government. He says the original reasons for putting the work on hold have been resolved. For example, the manuscripts have been published, and governments have had time to review lab safety requirements.

FOUCHIER: And therefore, I do not see any reasons to not lift the moratorium.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Fouchier noted that this week's conference is only for flu researchers who get U.S. federal funding. That means other researchers who signed the moratorium weren't there to express their views.

FOUCHIER: It seems like the American scientists are in favor of following Tony Fauci's suggestion to extend the moratorium. But then again, they're Americans. And we'll see what the Europeans think about this and the Asians think about this proposal to extend the moratorium. I doubt that there will be unanimous agreement worldwide.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He personally has funding from other sources that could potentially be used for this research, so he's considering his options. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.

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