03/29/2012 04:43 EDT | Updated 05/29/2012 05:12 EDT

US tightens oversight of high-stakes research amid debate over bird flu work

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is ordering a government-wide review of scientific research that could raise biosecurity concerns in the wake of fierce controversy over some man-made strains of the deadly bird flu.

The policy released Thursday tightens oversight of high-stakes research involving dangerous germs, work that could bring a big payoff but which also could cause harm if the research ever is misused.

The new U.S. policy doesn't mean there's anything wrong with doing this kind of research, including recent experiments in Wisconsin and the Netherlands that created easier-to-spread versions of the bird flu.

"These were important experiments to perform," stressed Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, which is posting the new policy Thursday on its biosecurity website.

The policy lays out steps to help scientists and government agencies determine which projects raise particular concerns about biosecurity and how to ensure that risks from the research are carefully managed from the start.

The policy comes as biosecurity advisers to the government began a two-day meeting Thursday to reconsider whether the public ever should hear the full details of those bird-flu experiments.

Bird flu only occasionally sickens people, mostly after close contact with infected poultry, but it can be deadly when it does. Scientists long have feared it might mutate to spread more easily and thus spark a pandemic. Two NIH-funded labs were studying how that might happen when they created strains of this H5N1 virus that some mammals — ferrets — can spread by coughing or sneezing.

The work triggered international debate when the U.S. government urged that details be kept secret so would-be terrorists couldn't copy the strains, and critics worried that a lab accident might allow the viruses to escape. But flu experts meeting at the World Health Organization disagreed, saying the research should be published eventually.

The researchers have said the airborne virus didn't actually kill the ferrets and that publishing their findings would help other scientists monitor bird flu's evolution in the wild as well as test vaccines and treatments. The government will consider the biosecurity advisers' recommendations as it decides next steps.

Fauci said in an interview Thursday that the bird flu experiments were conducted under very strict safety protocols. The new biosecurity policy probably wouldn't have prevented the big debate over what to do with the results, but its call for regular reviews might have offered advance warning about the coming dilemma, he said. Instead, the scientific community was caught by surprise.

There already are strict government rules on how to handle certain germs that might be of interest to bioterrorists, but Fauci said the new policy makes clear steps for assessing and managing risks with such research. He predicted dilemmas like the bird-flu research would be rare.

The NIH has completed its own biosecurity review and found fewer than 10 projects that met the criteria for further risk management, he said.



National Institutes of Health biosecurity website: