Federal government reviewing projects for high-risk dual use bioresearch

The federal government is undertaking a comprehensive risk assessment of its funded biological research that involves experimentation with agents that have the potential to cause mass casualties, officials told a April 26 Senate panel. 

The review is the result of an updated policy (.pdf) on "dual use research of concern" issued in March by the National Institutes of Health office of science policy. The policy came on the heels of a controversial decision in late 2011 by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to recommend that two NIH-funded scientific papers on bird flu H5N1 viruses genetically-modified to spread between mammals not be published in full out of fears that the findings could be duplicated to malevolent effect.

The board voted Match 30 to recommend full publication of both papers in revised form--including methods--a decision the NIH said in an April 20 statement that it concurs with.  

During a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases within the NIH said a review of all 381 extramural research grant recipients turned up 10 projects designated as a dual use research of concern, or DURC. Seven involve influenza, he said, while the other three consist of individual instances of research involving anthrax, plague, and botulism.

"Those are the ones we're now going through the process that's delineated very carefully in the new policy," he added.

The new DURC policy will require funded projects to come up for review by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity earlier, said Paul Keim, acting board chairman.

Fauci also said the DURC policy may cause the government to turn down research proposals that "might be pushing the envelope of creating something that would give you some information but it isn't really addressing any danger."

Some of the controversy surrounding the two genetically altered H5N1 virus papers was whether the methods involved will indeed improve flu surveillance. Thomas Inglesby, chief executive officer and director, of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's biosecurity center said they likely do not, at least "in the short term."

"Genetic mutation data is not widely collected in avian flu surveillance systems. Very few sequences are analyzed in real time. Even if we could identify experimental mutations in birds in real time, prescribed response would still be the same: culling of infected birds, all flocks, regardless of the mutations of the virus," he added.

In response, Fauci said it's true that there currently isn't a lot of genetics-based flu surveillance, but "if we only looked at the short-term benefit of research, we wouldn't do a lot of research at the NIH."

For more:
- go to the hearing (prepared  testimonies and webcast available)
- download the March 2012 DURC policy (.pdf)

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