Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What Limits Are Needed for Research Involving Highly Infectious Viruses?

Back in January of 2012, a number of top influenza researchers agreed to a voluntary moratorium on any research involving contagious, lab-altered forms of one strain of bird flu. This week, a number of flu researchers are meeting in New York for the annual conference of the U.S. government-funded Centers for Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance. One part of the agenda for this conference will be to discuss  if the moratorium should be lifted, or if it should stay in place.

Some scientists and researchers are concerned that if mutant bird flu viruses somehow got out of the lab, they could cause a devastating pandemic. Others argue that lifting this ban is crucial to making sure that public health officials are reading for any possible threat of a flu pandemic that might emerge naturally, as bird flu viruses mutate in the wild.

Meanwhile, the U.S. National Institutes of Health will be watching and and participating in the conversation about what should be done about overseeing research involving high-risk pathogens. To read more, check out NPR's article, "Bird Flu Researchers To Meet About Research Moratorium" from  July 24, 2012.

The World Health Organization will also be having an open meeting sometime next year on these issues, and has recently released some guidelines on what kinds of risk-control measures should be used by labs researching mutant bird flu viruses.

Are these kinds of voluntary guidelines enough, or do international governments need to step in and provide some oversight when research involves the use of highly contagious viruses? Or, should it be up to the scientific community to decide when research of this kind should continue, and what kinds of limitations should be put in place to protect the public?

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