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NIH panel supports stronger safeguards for H5N1 research

A federal advisory committee yesterday recommended increased biosafety precautions for research involving H5N1 avian influenza viruses that can spread among mammals, a step that stems from the ongoing controversy over studies involving lab-modified H5N1 strains that show increased transmissibility in ferrets.

The Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) called for a number of additions to enhanced biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) precautions, which scientists have used in recent studies involving more-transmissible H5N1 viruses. The panel discussed the recommendations at an all-day meeting that was webcast.

In calling for further enhancement of BSL-3 precautions, the committee rejected the option of advocating the highest level of biosafety, BSL-4, a standard that only a few labs around the world can meet. Just one member of the panel supported going to BSL-4.

The aim of the recommended steps is to reduce the risk of infections in lab workers and of accidental release of dangerous H5N1 viruses. The steps include things like more personal protective equipment, a "buddy system" for workers, taking baseline serum samples, giving a licensed H5N1 vaccine, if available, to all lab workers, and requiring personnel to avoid contact with susceptible bird species for 5 days after working with the viruses in question.

The recommendations come just a day after 40 leading flu researchers from around the world declared an end to a year-old moratorium on H5N1 "gain of function" research, meaning experiments leading to increased transmissibility or pathogenicity. The researchers announced the moratorium in response to the controversy over whether the details of two such studies should be published.

The stated aim of the RAC meeting was to look at biosafety in research on highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 viruses that can spread among mammals by respiratory droplets.

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