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Scientists Debate How To Conduct Bird Flu Research

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

Nell Greenfieldboyce
Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.