Via New Scientist: Flu researchers don't know when they can restart work. Excerpt:
After six months of dispute, research in the Netherlands that made a deadly H5N1 flu airborne will be published this week. The scientists behind it now want to get on with their work – but they can't.
In December 2011, a US biosecurity committee advised against publishing the research, fearing it was "dual-use research of concern" (DURC) – done for noble reasons, but dangerous if pathogens escaped or if bioterrorists obtained them. Most committee members changed their minds in April, and approved publication.
But in January, before that turnaround, the world's top flu labs declared a moratorium on any further such research in a bid to calm the situation.
"Now, we don't know under what conditions we can lift the moratorium," says Ab Osterhaus of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, where the research was done.
In theory they can at any time, because the agreement was voluntary. The problem, says Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is that any similar research done before ground rules for DURC are clarified could run into a similar dispute over publishing.
The US hastily published a new DURC policy in March. It says that if work with any of 15 pathogens increases virulence, transmission, hosts or resistance to defences, researchers must apply a mitigation plan to be agreed by relevant authorities. This may include increased containment, changing the experiment, withholding results, classifying the work under secrecy rules – or just not doing it.
A further plan will be published soon, says Fauci. It will flesh out what risks are unacceptable and how to mitigate them, and draw up a committee from US government agencies to apply the rules.
Some researchers welcome the move. "The policy adds another layer of oversight to make sure that all angles have been discussed before and after an experiment with potential dual use," says Adolfo García-Sastre at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
Others fear trouble. Ron Fouchier, who led the Dutch work on H5N1, says the Dutch authorities are happy with his biocontainment precautions, but a US committee is re-examining them under the new DURC rules. He worries that pathogen research could simply leave the US. Fouchier thinks researchers and authorities should discuss safety while planning research – and that it should apply to more than the 15 pathogens.