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Friday, February 17, 2012

Scientists compare dual-use H5N1 and Asilomar meetings

From Lisa Schnirring at CIDRAP :

" Some experts involved in the controversy over two H5N1 transmission papers have called the pause in research and discussions over the dual-use nature of the work an "Asilomar moment," referring to a scientific meeting held in the 1970s to discuss the potential dangers of recombinant DNA research.

Yesterday on National Public Radio's (NPR's) All Things Considered program, three of the more than 100 scientists who took part in that meeting that took place in February 1975 at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, Calif., discussed similarities and differences between the issues raised almost four decades ago and the topics scientists are confronting today and tomorrow at a meeting of flu technical experts convened by the World Health Organization (WHO).

One of the participants in the WHO meeting is Paul Keim, PhD, who first raised the Asilomar analogy. Keim is acting chair of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), an outside advisory group to the National Institutes of Health that was asked to review dual-use issues surrounding the studies. The NSABB recommended that two studies be published in Science and Nature without key details.

Paul Berg, PhD, Nobel prize winner in chemistry and professor emeritus of molecular and genetic medicine at Stanford University, told NPR that the meeting was called as scientists took their first steps into the field of genetic engineering, and the discovery that triggered the meeting was his group's first experiments with recombinant DNA.

He said his first reaction when some scientists raised concerns about the research was, "Nonsense!"

However, he said he realized that he couldn't ensure that there was no risk and that the scientific tools were advancing rapidly, with more researchers doing similar work. He said he and other scientists asked their peers to hold off on their experiments until a consensus could be reached on safety ground rules."

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