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Keeping Watch

The White House released a new policy this week guiding how dual-use research of concern — such as work reconstructing the 1918 flu virus or making an avian flu strain more easily transmitted — should be overseen.

These new regulations aim to “preserve the benefits of life-science research while minimizing the risk of misuse," US National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins tells the New York Times.

In particular, the policy focuses on experiments involving 15 specific agents and toxins, such as Bacillus anthracis, the Ebola virus, and Yersinia pestis, that aim to make them more harmful, more contagious, or resistant to therapies, among others.

Projects involving these pathogens are to be assessed by a board at the researchers' institution that will determine the risks and inform the federal funding agency, typically the NIH. The investigators and their institution would then develop a plan to mitigate those risks, while the funding agency will provide guidance and determine whether the project should be funded.

Non-compliance could lead to a loss of funding, the New York Times adds, noting that critics say such penalties are rarely put into place. NIH, Rutgers University's Richard Ebright says, has “a sorry track record of nonenforcement.”

The guidelines don't, however, cover gain-of-function research, the Nature News Blog points out. Experiments aimed at making pathogens not among those 15 listed more dangerous aren't included, though government officials say additional guidelines to be released shortly will address such work, it adds.

The call for such a policy governing dual-use research of concern was thrown into focus in 2011 when researchers succeeded in making bird flu more contagious in ferrets.