Scientists to feel US government breathing down their necks

Chill winds of Washington's scrutiny set to blow through laboratories after deadly flu scare

Scientists studying potentially dangerous infectious agents will be subjected to far greater scrutiny from the start of their research following the controversy over virologists who surprised bioterrorism experts by creating a highly infectious strain of birdflu virus.

The US Government has drawn up a list of 15 dangerous toxins and pathogens, from influenza to bubonic plague, it will scrutinise from the beginning of a research proposal rather than waiting until scientists submit their final results for publication.

The move comes as flu experts meet in London this week to discuss H5N1 birdflu and how to handle cases of "dual use" research that has a valid non-military purpose but could be misused either by terrorists or rogue states intent on developing biowarfare agents.

The issue came to a head last December when the US Government's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended two research papers documenting the airborne transmission of H5N1 birdflu should be redacted prior to publication over fears key details could be used by bioterrorists to start a global pandemic.

Both manuscripts, one by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam and the other by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, were subsequently revised. Last Friday the board decided it would now be safe to publish the findings after it had reappraised the risks and benefits of full publication.

However, board members were dismayed they first heard of the work by Fouchier and Kawaoka after the scientists submitted it for publication in the journals Science and Nature. "The US Government has now issued a new policy on the regulation and monitoring of this type of research experiments. This suggests this type of work will not fly under the radar any longer," said Paul Keim, the board's chairman. "High-level scrutiny will be applied to research early in the funding process, not just at the end when researchers want to publish."

Under the new policy, scientists will be subject to detailed scrutiny if they work or propose to work on a range of potentially dangerous diseases or toxins, such as botulism, and animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth. The policy states 15 infectious agents were singled out as they "pose the greatest risk of deliberate misuse with most significant potential for mass casualties or devastating effects to the economy, critical infrastructure, or public confidence".

Work on the avian influenza is also included because the H5N1 birdflu virus is deadly on the relatively rare occasions it has jumped the "species barrier" from bird into humans. Of the 598 confirmed cases of birdflu in humans, 352 have proved fatal – a mortality rate of nearly 60 per cent.

Dr Fouchier and Dr Kawaoka demonstrated using different techniques that it was theoretically possible to make H5N1 far more infectious by mutating it into a form that could be transmitted through the air between laboratory ferrets, the classic animal "model" of human influenza.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test