An influential member of the US Congress remains dissatisfied with the government’s handling of two research papers on mutant forms of avian influenza, and is threatening legislation to control the controversial research.
Jim Sensenbrenner (Republican, Wisconsin) today said that the lack of a cohesive policy for handling risky research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal agencies could necessitate new laws, a situation that researchers have been trying to avoid. “I prefer not to pursue legislation on this issue, with the hopes the scientific community can create its own approach. But failing a consequential … policy, Congressional action could be required,” Sensenbrenner told Nature in a statement.
The second of the controversial papers showing that H5N1, or ‘bird flu’, can spread through the air between mammals was published last week, providing some closure to the months-long debate about the work and whether its publication would result in the proliferation of dangerous viruses and increased risk of an accidental or intentional release. Sensenbrenner says not enough work has been done to ensure that such controversies don’t arise again.
On 21 June, NIH director Francis Collins responded to some pointed questions issued by Sensenbrenner’s office after a 29–30 March meeting when the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) reversed its initial opposition to the publication of the papers, in light of some manuscript revisions and the addition of data. Sensenbrenner, who is the vice-chairman of the Congressional committee on science and technology and sits on a subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security, had requested details on the provenance of a new government policy on reporting and overseeing ‘dual-use research of concern’ (DURC), research that could conceivably be put to nefarious ends.
This policy had been issued, hastily it seemed, on the first day of the NSABB’s March meeting. Collins’s response (found here) states that the 29 March policy was an “interagency effort, involving 15 federal departments and agencies and multiple entities from the Executive Office of the President.” Collins asserts that policy applies to all US departments and agencies that fund or conduct life-science research and that compliance is mandatory.
Sensenbrenner tells Nature that the NIH’s response isn’t particularly comforting.
“I am still unsatisfied with how the H5N1 issue was handled. Being unprepared for this situation was wholly unacceptable. I also am unconvinced that the recently-released DURC policy will sufficiently balance the critical interests at stake. Rather than a system of review, the new policy seems to be little more than a registration requirement for a limited number of projects dealing with specific pathogens. And while NIH has assured me that compliance is mandatory, the actual text of the policy states that Federal Departments and Agencies ‘should implement’ the enumerated actions, which raises the question of whether Federal Agencies will interpret compliance as discretionary.”
Sensenbrenner adds that he hopes the science community can quickly devise an approach to DURC.
Yesterday, 26 June, we reported that
Anthony Fauci, head of the NIH institute that funded the flu research, is planning to release a more detailed plan — the United States Government Policy for Local Institutional Oversight of Dual Use Research of Concern — will likely be available for public comment within the coming weeks. Nevertheless, a self-imposed moratorium on research with mutant flu strains appears likely to lift before that policy would take effect. More high-risk papers are likely to be published under the current oversight system, which has proved inadequate for handling them.
Update: Correction made. Dr. Fauci is not the one responsible for releasing the policy.
See also our special on mutant-flu research.