The continuing saga of avian influenza research

Culling of bird flocks, image Assoc. Press via NPR

A story heard on National Public Radio summarized the current state of the controversy over some recent research into the pathogenesis of avian influenza.  I’ve talked about this research earlier on this blog, and personally feel that the research was important and that there must be a conduit to communicate the results to the greater medical research community.  To summarize, a group of researchers in the Netherlands and at the University of Wisconsin engineered a variant of avian influenza that is significantly more pathogenic and lethal than normal avian influenza. My argument in favor of this research was two-fold: first, a deeper understanding of the pathogenesis of influenza virus will facilitate development of treatments for existing influenza outbreaks, and second, random viral mutation in some sense will result in a naturally arising virus with increased virulence, and this research allows us to be better prepared to detect that potentially horrific event. 

The latest twist in this story comes again from the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which was examining the procedures in place at the University of Wisconsin prior to the influenza research being done. All work done in laboratories in the United States which receive funding for that work in the form of research grants (from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the US Dept. of Agriculture, and many other funding agencies) must have prior approval for the Institutional Biosafety Committee before the grant can be submitted to the agency for funding consideration. The IBC at each research institution is composed of members of the research community at that institution along with safety officers and administrators, and their job is to examine the proposed research carefully from a safety standpoint. One aspect of this review process is the determination whether the research might fall under the category of “dual-use;” that is, a very legitimate scientific outcome is clearly visible from the work, but additionally there exists the potential for mis-use of the work to cause harm if it were to be published.

Dual-use classification was noted in the IBC approval by the University of Wisconsin for the research, when they met in 2009. The committee determined that the potential for misuse of the work existed, but that the research as it was proposed did not offer any risks to the University community were it to be done. The IBC additionally noted, and I agree, that significant benefit would exist from the work were it to be successful.  Additionally, current instructions to university Institutional Biosafety Committees do not require them to make a “dual-use” determination; they are solely tasked with determining whether the research can be done safely at that institution. So in this sense, the UWisconsin IBC went above and beyond in their examination of the research.

What needs to happen at this point is the development of more complete federal guidelines for examining “dual-use” research. Misappropriation of basic and applied research can and will occur, however further understanding of the mechanisms of disease has no inherent ethical basis on its own. Clearer guidelines for describing “dual-use” research can either occur at the IBC level, as it did with the avian influenza research, or at the federal level by the grant funding agencies.  Explicit statement of these risks at this point will be instructive. If we know of that a danger exists, we can be in a better position to be prepared for that danger.

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About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on March 28, 2012, in Danger danger danger!, Microbes in the News. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This is a bit frightening, because all I can see in this research is the next deadly outbreak of a virus we can not control because the research fell into the wrong hands. For one thing I understand their logic that if we can treat something more virulent that we well have a better chance of finding treatments for lesser viruses, however instead of creating something that could potentially wipe us all out, why not put that money and time into just treating the diseases that we are currently contending with. I also don’t understand why this research would be conducted at a University I would think that makes the potential for the virus and research to fall into the wrong hands even easier. If they must conduct this research I feel it would be better done at a lab of the CDC or the military where the facility is more secure. It just amazes me when I read about scientist putting all this time and energy into creating things that could harm us instead of things that can help us. And not trying to be funny, but this is exactly how we are going to end up making zombies!!!

    • Don’t forget that the FBI’s primary suspect in the Amerithrax terrorist case was a worker from one of the most secure government labs in the world, and had incredible security measures in place.

      • That is a very good point, but I believe also feeds into my fear that if someone who has been cleared security wise for such sensitive work will turn against our country in that way..I guess in my mind getting to someone in a university setting would be easier. I think it is kind of like the ultimate question of our ability to play God in some aspects, just because we can create some of these things does not always mean we should.

        • Although I certainly understand your fears, I think that unfortunately in today’s world with the ease of molecular biological techniques that it would be virtually impossible to segregate risks associated with true dual use research into high security labs. First, most of the best biomedical research today in the US is being done in non-governmental labs at colleges and universities. Second, the wide availability of the technologies means that even if there were legal restrictions in place, the ease of them would allow a disgruntled individual to go ahead and do it anyway. It’s kind of like the argument “guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people.”

          This is why I think that firmer instructions to IBCs would be productive. Lay out the ramifications of a controversial research project, so that we might be better prepared for misuse. That’s why I think the current discussion on avian influenza is so critical.

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