National Security Council wants new rules on biological research

WASHINGTON — The National Security Council is moving to exert greater federal control over scientific studies of highly lethal diseases and toxins in the face of mounting fears that the research could be used by terrorists and rogue states, according to people with knowledge of the process.

Under the NSC’s guidance, the government plans to issue guidelines for research grants that would give agencies the authority to delay or restrict publication of findings they considered susceptible to “dual use” by terrorists or enemy states. The new guidelines are expected to be issued in the coming weeks.

But the possibility of stricter guidelines is also raising concerns about scientific openness and increased red tape that could slow the release of findings that would save lives.

“From our standpoint, it seems unreasonable for there to be approval of our research at every step of the way … and then, once we have completed critically important experiments, to have an outside group conclude we should not publish,” said Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, professor of virology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who helped touch off the controversy with his work on the H5N1 bird flu.

“If infectious disease research in this country becomes regulated beyond what is appropriate, the U.S. will not be able to provide the breakthroughs the rest of the world relies on, and public health will suffer,” he said.

Last year Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, created a stir when he announced at a scientific meeting that he had created a strain of avian flu that was deadly and easily transmissible. The Kawaoka and Fouchier research projects, funded by the National Institutes of Health, raised widespread alarm that if the studies’ methodology and results were published in full, they could become how-to manuals for making biological weapons.

Security experts at the NIH stepped in to delay publication and remove certain details of studies that showed how Fouchier and Kawaoka altered the deadly H5N1 avian flu virus to make it easily contagious among mammals.

Until now, nearly all people who had contracted H5N1 got it through contact with a sick bird. The new research opened the possibility that a sick person could infect other people directly, stirring concerns about lethal pandemics.

Accepted for publication in the prestigious journals Science and Nature, the papers were sent to the NIH’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which urged that the studies not be issued intact. An expert panel of the World Health Organization decided Friday that the papers would not be published any time soon.

Despite the compliance of the H5N1 scientists with the delay, the NIH and National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity can only make recommendations to researchers, not compel action. The new guidelines would give federal agencies the legal authority to limit disclosure of research.

Among the entities whose grant making could be affected are the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Agriculture and the NIH.

The guidelines would apply to research involving so-called Tier 1 select agents, a list of pathogens and toxins the government has determined poses the most severe threats to public health. H5N1 influenza is on the Agriculture Department’s Tier 1 list.

In January, Fouchier, Kawaoka and more than 30 other top scientists in the field issued a public letter saying they had agreed to a 60-day moratorium on research to give the international scientific community a chance to find ways to gauge the benefits and reduce the risks of such work.

The WHO also decided at a recent Geneva meeting to extend the moratorium, but declined to specify the duration.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Mike Rosen
Businessman Mike Rosen announces campaign for mayor of Edmonds

Rosen, a city planning board member, is backed by five former Edmonds mayors. It’s unclear if incumbent Mike Nelson will run again.

FILE - A Boeing 747-8, Boeing's new passenger plane, takes its first flight, Sunday, March 20, 2011, at Paine Field in Everett, Wash. After more than half a century, Boeing is rolling its last 747 out of a Washington state factory on Tuesday night. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Boeing’s last 747 to roll off the Everett assembly line

The Queen of the Skies was dethroned by smaller, more fuel-efficient jets. The last 747s were built for a cargo carrier.

PUD workers install new transformers along 132nd Street on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022 in Mill Creek, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Electric vehicles spur big forecast jump for PUD demand

Not long ago, the Snohomish County PUD projected 50,000 electric cars registered in the county by 2040. Now it expects up to 660,000.

Traffic moves northbound on I-5 through Everett on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Grinding work still needed for I-5 through Everett

Construction crews need warmer temps for the work to remove what a reader described as “mini raised speed bumps.”

After a day of learning to fight fires, Snohomish firefighter recruit Chau Nguyen flakes a hose as other recruits load the hoses onto a fire truck April 19, 2018, at the training facility on S. Machias Rd. in Snohomish. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)
Lawsuit: Everett firefighter sexually harassed numerous recruits

Chau Nguyen resigned earlier this year, long after the first complaint about his behavior at the county’s fire training academy.

NO CAPTION. Logo to accompany news of education.
Stanwood-Camano School Board seeks applicants for vacancy

Ken Christoferson, the district’s longest serving board member, resigned on Dec. 6.

The final 747 is rolled out of the factory on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Final 747 rollout signals end of an era for Boeing, Everett

After a 55-year run, the last of the “Queen of the Skies” emerged from the Everett assembly plant Tuesday evening.

Pilchuck Secret Valley Tree Farm owner Paul Dierck walks through a row of trees on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Christmas trees, a Washington cash crop, get a little more spendy

Christmas tree farms generate about $688,000 each season for Snohomish County farmers. Some are still open for business.

Marysville to pay $1M to another former student for alleged sex abuse

The latest settlement marks the earliest known allegations against Kurt Hollstein, who worked in the district until last year.

Most Read