On Tuesday, the National Institutes of Health in Maryland is holding a second day of talks about whether and how to continue funding some controversial scientific experiments.
Back in January, virologists agreed to temporarily stop research that was creating new forms of bird flu, because critics argued that the work was too dangerous. NIH officials are now seeking input from scientists and the public about how to proceed.
Scientists, national security experts and public health workers have come from all over — including places like the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Italy, Indonesia and Vietnam — to discuss thorny issues raised by the research.
"The subject of this meeting literally affects every individual in the world," noted Harvey Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, who is helping to run the conference. "Every citizen in every country has a stake in the research that will or will not go forward with respect to these highly pathogenic agents."
These pathogenic agents are altered forms of the bird flu virus known as H5N1. H5N1 is widespread in poultry in parts of Asia and the Middle East, but it rarely infects people. Over half of those who are known to have gotten sick, however, have died.
Public health experts worry that the virus might mutate, begin spreading from person to person, and start a pandemic. Last year, NIH-funded researchers showed that certain genetic mutations could indeed make H5N1 spread easily between ferrets, the lab stand-in for people.