HHS Releases Framework for Funding H5N1 Research

It responds to the recent lifting of a yearlong moratorium on research on the avian influenza virus.

Dr. Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institutes of Health, on Feb. 21 announced HHS has released a new framework to guide federal decisions about funding research that is anticipated to generate highly pathogenic avian H5N1 viruses that are transmissible among mammals by respiratory droplets.

This research became highly controversial in the past two years because there was great concern the research findings could be used by terrorists to create a public health crisis. But while two papers about the research that had been delayed were ultimately published, Collins and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases within NIH, explained last June that the fears sparked by media coverage when publication was stopped were overblown: One of the authors was asked by Science reviewers to supply lethality data, and when he did, it was reported that the transmitted virus had killed the ferrets involved in the experiment. However, ferrets that inhaled airborne droplets of the mutated virus survived -- and because this is the way people could be exposed, it suggests humans are at less risk than the earlier reports suggested. The animals that died instead had the virus administered directly to their tracheas, a commentary written by Collins and Fauci explained.

Collins noted Feb. 21 that this research is important for understanding whether the virus could evolve to become more readily transmissible among mammals, including humans, and for creating countermeasures if it can. "The new framework, developed with extensive international and public consultation, outlines a robust review process that takes into account the scientific and public health benefits, the biosafety and biosecurity risks, and the appropriate risk mitigation measures pertinent to the proposed research," he wrote in the announcement posted by HHS.

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