Bird-Flu Research to Continue as U.S. Sets Funding Conditions

U.S. health authorities outlined the conditions for funding research on the H5N1 bird flu virus a month after scientists lifted a yearlong pause on the work that was imposed amid concerns it could be used by terrorists.

The Department of Health and Human Services will only fund studies that meet seven criteria, officials including HHS chief-of-staff Sally Howard and National Institutes of Health director Francis S. Collins wrote in the journal Science today. The criteria include a requirement to demonstrate that a virus that scientists plan to create in a lab could evolve naturally, and that safety and security risks can be managed.

The conditions are aimed at enabling research that would help the world prepare for a rapidly spreading form of H5N1. The virus has infected 620 people in 15 countries since 2003, killing 60 percent of them, according to the World Health Organization. Most victims have had direct contact with birds, and the virus has so far failed to acquire the ability to transmit easily between humans.

“HHS must, out of necessity, support some scientific research that involves a certain level of inherent risk but that is nevertheless essential for our health and well-being,” Howard and colleagues wrote.

Scientists worldwide issued a voluntary moratorium on H5N1 research in January 2012 after two NIH-funded studies showed how to make the virus easier to transmit among ferrets, the mammals whose response to flu is most like that of humans.

The findings illuminated the genetic mutations the virus would need to undergo to become more transmissible, and raised concern the laboratory strains could be released accidentally or that publication of the findings could enable terrorists to create the viruses.

The scientists lifted the moratorium on Jan. 23, saying researchers should restart work in countries where governments have approved appropriate biosecurity measures. That didn’t include the U.S. at the time.

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