At a meeting of influenza researchers in Times Square New York Tuesday, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) recommended that researchers continue to honour a self-imposed moratorium on certain experiments with highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1, saying that researchers needed to better justify the benefits of the research to the public.
“I strongly recommend that you continue this voluntary moratorium until you can have this open and transparent process addressing the fundamental principles,” he said.
During a lengthy question and answer session following his presentation, lines were drawn between researchers who agreed and those who disagreed with continuing the moratorium, which was on a narrow type of experiment that endow H5N1 with new properties, such as the ability to transmit between mammals. Although originally planned for 60 days, it has been in place since late in January.
Robert Webster, a flu researcher at St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, said that he supported continuing the moratorium and emphasized communicating with the public. “At my dinner table, my grandchildren are concerned. So, I have to convince them that it’s safe to continue these important works.” Daniel Perez at the University of Maryland urged that the work continue noting that the laboratory studies currently being stalled are probably far less dangerous than field research collecting avian influenza isolates around the world. People do the research because of the good that could come from it, he argued. As a society, he said, “we have made it far because we take risks.”
For a half hour at the 6th annual meeting of the Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance, Fauci laid out the case for his reasoning and explained the ongoing process to develop a government policy to address so-called dual use research of concern (DURC) — research which could be misapplied for nefarious purposes. Multiple agencies from the National Institutes of Health and its governing bodies to the department of agriculture and national security have been involved in developing this policy which would govern how individual researchers and institutions must report on and mitigate potential DURC.
Part of this policy would include the formation of a government-wide agency tasked with developing and implementing guidelines for federally funded researchers in a way that involves input from all interested parties including the lay public, scientists in other fields and the global community. Fauci hoped that the body could be in place by the end of the summer, but was careful not to promise. “I don’t control it,” he said adamantly.
Its establishment may or may not be a prerequisite for lifting the moratorium. Regardless, researchers will first have to answer some important questions. Namely, are so-called gain-of-function experiments – those which confer new properties to existing pathogens — absolutely necessary? And the answer needs to be heard and accepted by the general public. Ron Fouchier, of Erasmus University in the Netherlands led one of the groups whose research was a catalyst for the moratorium. He said, unequivocally, that such research is necessary. He also warned that other researchers, not funded by the U.S. government may not be willing to continue the moratorium, and this research will continue in other countries.
Fauci acknowledged that possibility but said that he hoped that researchers in other countries would continue to be part of the discussion and explain publicly their reasons for doing so. He repeatedly emphasized the need for transparency and commiserated with flu researchers who felt that their research was being singled out. “For pandemic flu scientists and the agencies that support them the game has changed. If we want to continue this very important work we must realize that we are part of the process of the policy and decision making, but we are not the only part.”