In the movie “Contagion,” a deadly virus created by researchers gets out of the lab and kills millions. Fears of the same thing happening in real life prompted a moratorium on real life tests with the deadly H1N1 virus that caused a worldwide pandemic. Now, the government is debating whether the benefits are worth the risk.
Federal health officials, researchers and and other experts have just concluded a two-day conference on whether to end the year-long moratorium.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, joined Ross and Burbank Wednesday to discuss the debate and the controversy.
“There’s no clean answer to that (benefit vs. risk). It needs to be analyzed on a case by case basis. But you have to have some fundamental principles that you go by,” Fauci says.
The Centers for Disease Control estimate the H1N1 or Bird Flu pandemic killed somewhere between 150,000 and 575,400 people in 2009, the first year the virus circulated. The vast majority were in Southeast Asia and Africa. Fauci says creating strains of the disease could help researchers identify and possibly treat future outbreaks.
“There’s a great deal of concern of public health officials, particularly in that area of the world, that this virus the way that other virus’s often do, is going to ultimately by mutations, assume the capability of transmitting more efficiently in humans,” he says. And many argue that’s why the testing needs to resume.
One thing is certain. Regardless of whether the controversial research is allowed to resume, pandemics will continue to happen. Fauci says the only question is how prepared we’ll be for the next one.
“Is the knowledge gained really worth it? Is this something that is imminently going to happen in nature anyway so you better go ahead and find out what it’s going to look like?” Fauci says.
If the research is allowed, Fauci insists it will be tightly controlled and no federal funding will be granted unless facilities are well regulated, with strict safety and security measures in place and diligent government oversight.
Experts at the meeting argued the moratorium has prevented badly needed work that could head off the next outbreak and needs to resume as soon as possible.
Fauci says the government will take comments on proposed rulemaking until January 10, then make a decision soon after. He insists whatever decision is made will be through a completely transparent process, and any approved research must be shared widely.
“Our mandate is to do basic and clinical research that adds to the fundamental knowledge that the world can use, so it is completely outside of our mandate to do classified research,” Fauci said at the meeting. “When you do classified research, there’s automatically a suspicion that somehow there’s something maybe nefarious about that. And that’s not the space the NIH is in, wants to be in, or ever will be in. We’re not going to do classified research.”
Some security experts worry that could essentially publicize the recipe for a potential bio-weapon, but Fauci insists any approved research would address those concerns.
The Associated Press contributed to this report