Many people are afraid that scientists could create a pathogen that, by accident or through deliberate acts, could escape from the lab and sicken millions. Some still worry that publishing the details of such studies — a key part of the scientific process — amounts to hand-delivering a recipe for a potent bioweapon to technologically proficient terrorists.
In the months since the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity first asked for the studies to be amended before publication, scientists have adhered to a self-imposed moratorium on such research — and they're still struggling to figure out how to lift it, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which funded both H5N1 studies.
U.S. officials issued a policy in March requiring federal agencies that fund or conduct biological research to report to the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism when they have experiments underway that qualify as dual-use research of concern. Researchers also must develop plans to limit risks, but the policy doesn't lay out how those plans should be assembled.
"In the abstract, it's easy to say we need to mitigate the risk," said Carrie Wolinetz, a vice president at the Assn. of American Universities, which lobbies for increased research funding. "But where this plays out in terms of research processes is difficult to figure out."
In one of several commentaries that accompany the Science papers, Wolinetz pointed out that the new policy wouldn't have covered some notorious dual-use experiments from the past, including an Australian study that inadvertently increased the virulence of mousepox and thus revealed how the same might be done for smallpox.
Mark Frankel, director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program at the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science (which publishes Science), worried that more red tape would discourage researchers from pursuing H5N1 work. The publication of Fouchier's paper was delayed in part because the Dutch government made him apply for permission to submit his work to Science, on the grounds that the research should be regulated as the export of weapons technology, he wrote in one of the other commentaries.
The U.S. government isn't finished addressing H5N1 research and plans to release additional guidelines to help research institutions manage the risks of dual-use research of concern, Fauci said.
In his view, he added, the benefit of studying H5N1 "far outweighs" any potential danger.
There's risk in everything in life, he said.