After a high-level meeting this week, work on the avian influenza H5N1 virus will probably continue by people who are not NIH funded. This is in the wake of a global debate about the risks and benefits of such research and a voluntary moratorium on the experiments lasting nearly a year.
Experts met on Monday and Tuesday of this week at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland to discuss the future of such work, so-called gain-of-function experiments, which entails changing the virus’ properties to make it more transmissible and infectious in humans in order to investigate the possible natural evolution of the virus.
While the meeting didn’t reconcile the differences of opinion over the risks, or address the moratorium, it appears that non-NIH funded investigations might resume in H5N1 work. The meeting was also set to discuss a new framework for overseeing such work in US funded research. It will add an extra layer that will be managed by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on top of peer review and other standard safety as well as ethical reviews.
This review could result in the research not being funded, or possibly being recommended to another branch of government to be handled as classified. The intention of the workshop was to road test the framework on some hypothetical case studies to identify its strengths and weaknesses.
Some scientists complained about the vague terms used in the framework. According to the draft of the framework, it would target most gain-of-function experiments. 75% of the studies in the H5N1 research portfolio would trigger a review, swamping the system and reducing the interest in such work.
One solution entailed focusing only on studies that would enhance the ability of H5N1 to transmit between mammals by air through respiratory droplets. The draft proposal can be consulted here [PDF]. The moratorium cannot be lifted for NIH-funded researchers until this process is complete.