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4:52 pm
Wed February 15, 2012

Scientists Debate How To Conduct Bird Flu Research

Originally published on Tue February 21, 2012 4:58 pm

Scientists working with bird flu recently called a 60-day halt on some controversial experiments, and the unusual move has been compared to a famous moratorium on genetic engineering in the 1970s.

But key scientists involved in that event disagree on whether history is repeating itself.

"I see an amazing similarity," says Nobel Prize winner Paul Berg, of Stanford University.

To him, it's almost eerie to watch events unfold just like they did back then: There's been a startling scientific discovery, concerns raised by an expert committee, then a voluntary moratorium and calls for an international discussion to figure out how to move forward in a way that protects the public.

This time around, fears revolve around experiments on the bird flu virus H5N1. Scientists tweaked its genes and made it more transmissible between ferrets, which are the laboratory stand-in for people.

Some experts fear that if this virus ever escaped or fell into the wrong hands, it could cause a devastating pandemic. On Jan. 20, flu virologists said they'd temporarily halt this line of research. And a small group of experts will meet at the World Health Organization in Geneva on Thursday and Friday to discuss what to do next.

In the 1970s, the concerns centered on the first steps towards what's now known as genetic engineering. Berg had figured out how to splice together DNA from different organisms. This was new, and some people were disturbed by the experiments Berg wanted to do that involved viruses and bacteria.

"People said, 'Hey, you're doing this crazy experiment, you're potentially spreading cancer genes, etc., etc,' " recalls Berg. "I said, 'Nonsense!' "

But as he talked to people, he began to realize that he couldn't say there was zero risk. And the tools he had pioneered were advancing rapidly. More and more people were doing this kind of work. So Berg and some colleagues took an unusual step.

They asked scientists around the world to hold off on certain experiments until there was a consensus on how to do them safely. In February of 1975, about 150 researchers gathered at the Asilomar conference center in Pacific Grove, Calif.

"They developed guidelines and policy for how to do that research, and we still live with many of those guidelines and policies today," says Paul Keim, a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University who chairs a government advisory committee that recently reviewed the bird flu research.

It recommended keeping some details of the bird flu experiments under wraps, so as not to provide terrorists with a recipe for a new biological weapon. And Keim and the other committee members recently issued a statement that calls the bird flu situation "another Asilomar-type moment."

"The parallels are that, you know, there is so much uncertainty here. The potential for grave harm is obvious, to most of us," says Keim. "So the thought is, why not pause here, think about what we're doing."

Society's 'Implied Trust' In Scientists

But others say today's controversy over bird flu and the events leading up to Asilomar don't really match up at all.

"There's a whole bunch of differences, actually, that make the situation that we faced in '73 and '75 really quite different from this," says Maxine Singer, a prominent molecular biologist who also was one of the organizers of Asilomar.

The Asilomar conference was forward-looking and focused on the potential risks of hypothetical experiments that scientists hadn't yet done, says Singer. This time around, worrisome bird flu viruses have already been made.

"Now we're talking about locking the barn door after the horses have gone," Singer says. "So that's one big difference."

And a big part of today's debate is whether to try to limit who gets to see key details of those experiments. Singer says that discussions about bird flu research seem to be happening in closed-door meetings convened by government-level agencies. But Asilomar was open to reporters, and was organized by the scientists themselves.

Today's moratorium also feels very different to Stanley Falkow, a prominent microbiologist who was at Asilomar.

This time, scientists agreed to a pause in their work only after a public outcry. "My view is that they're doing it grudgingly," Falkow says.

Society supports scientists and gives them tremendous freedom in their pursuit of knowledge, notes Falkow, "and there's an implied trust. And I think in part what's happened has shaken the trust of many people."

In his view, it's not enough for scientists to think that what they're doing is fine — one of the lessons of Asilomar is to make sure the public will think that, too.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Some experiments on bird flu are causing an international uproar. Scientists recently took a bird flu virus and altered its genes. There are fears that if this virus ever escapes lab or falls into the wrong hands, it could cause a devastating pandemic in people.

SIEGEL: The World Health Organization is holding a meeting tomorrow in Geneva to discuss what to do. And in the meantime, flu scientists have declared a 60-day moratorium on this line of research. It's almost unheard of for biologists to halt their work in this way.

But as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, there is one famous precedent.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Back in early 1970s, scientists were taking the first steps towards what we now know as genetic engineering. Nobel Prize winner Paul Berg had figured out how to splice together DNA from different organisms.

DR. PAUL BERG: The experiment I was doing was actually constructing first recombinant DNA that anybody had ever made. And it was an entire set of genes from a tumor-causing virus attached to a small mini chromosome that can replicate and propagate in a bacterium.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This is totally new. And for some people, it was disturbing.

BERG: My first reaction to when people said: Hey, you're doing this crazy experiment. You're potentially spreading cancer genes, et cetera, et cetera. I said, nonsense.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But Berg came to realize he couldn't say there was no risk. And the tools were advancing rapidly. More and more people were doing this kind of work. So Berg and some colleagues took an unusual step. They asked scientists around world to hold off on certain experiments, until there was a consensus on how to do them safely. In February of 1975, over 100 researchers gathered at Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California.

DR. PAUL KEIM: They developed guidelines and policy for how to do that research, and we still live with many of those guidelines and policies today.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Paul Keim is a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University. He chairs a government advisory committee that recently reviewed the bird flu research that will be discussed in Geneva tomorrow. For Keim, this is a moment just like Asilomar - scientists are doing work that could have unintended consequences for the public.

KEIM: The parallels are that, you know, there's so much uncertainty here. The potential for grave harm is obvious to most of us. So, the thought is why not pause here, think about what we're doing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's not only one to make link to Asilomar. Paul Berg says, for him, the bird flu situation is like the 1970's all over again.

BERG: I see in an amazing similarity.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says there is a game-changing scientific discovery, then concerns, then a moratorium, then calls for an international meeting. But others say this isn't history repeating itself. Maxine Singer is a prominent molecular biologist who also was one of the organizers of Asilomar.

DR. MAXINE SINGER: There's a whole bunch of differences actually that make the situation that we faced in '73 and '75 really quite different from this.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says Asilomar was forward-looking and focused on the potential risks of hypothetical experiments that scientists hadn't yet done. This time, worrisome viruses have already been made.

SINGER: Now we're talking about locking barn door after the horses have gone. So that's one big difference.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And a big part of today's debate is whether to try to limit who gets to see key details of those experiments. Singer says discussions about bird flu research seem to be happening in closed-door meetings, convened by government-level agencies. But Asilomar was open to reporters and was organized by the scientists themselves.

Stanley Falkow is a prominent microbiologist who also was at Asilomar. He says the current situation feels very different to him, too. This time, he notes, scientists agreed to a pause in their work only after a public outcry.

DR. STANLEY FALKOW: My view is that they're doing it grudgingly.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: No one is sure what come out of meeting in Geneva. But Falkow notes that society supports scientists and give some tremendous freedom in their pursuit of knowledge.

FALKOW: And there's an implied trust. And I think in part what's happened has shaken trust of many people.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Falkow says it's not enough for scientists to think that what they're doing is fine. To him, one of the lessons of Asilomar is to make sure public will think that too.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.