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Feds Seek Comments On Bird Flu Safety Fears

An electron microscope view of the bird flu virus.
PR Newswire
An electron microscope view of the bird flu virus.

Here's your chance to weigh in on mutant forms of bird flu that have been in the news — the U.S. government wants to know just how scary you think these new viruses are.

The Department of Health and Human Services posted a call for public comments today requesting information on whether the lab-created bird flu viruses "have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety." The government is also asking whether any special precautions need to be considered when scientists work with these viruses.

The move comes after some have criticized officials for not having enough public discussion about these controversial viruses, which were created in the lab as part of an effort to understand how highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu viruses out in the wild might mutate and start a pandemic in people.

Because the genetically-altered viruses are contagious between ferrets, the lab stand-in for people, some critics fear that these viruses could cause a deadly pandemic in humans if they ever escaped the lab. All work has been halted since January, when researchers adopted a voluntary moratorium that was only supposed to last 60 days.

Since then, experts in the scientific community have come to no consensus on whether research should go forward and, if so, under what conditions.

Some microbiologists have argued that the lab-modified viruses should only be studied at labs with the very highest level of containment and security, so-called "biosafety level 4" labs (BSL-4).

But others point out that limiting work to those labs would slow down valuable research, because the world has so few BSL-4 labs. They say experiments can be safely done at a slightly lower level of bio-containment, and that these studies are urgently needed to prepare for the threat of a naturally-occurring flu pandemic.

Before the end of the year, the government plans to hold an international workshop that will consider the risks and benefits of experiments that make highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu more contagious. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has urged that the scientists' voluntary moratorium continue while discussions move forward.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.