Health officials seek comments on H5N1 research risks

The Department of Health and Human Services is inviting public comment on whether research on H5N1 avian influenza viruses is dangerous enough to require new safety precautions and regulations.

The HHS is asking if people think H5N1, particularly strains modified in the lab to make them more transmissible, should be added to the HHS special agent list. The list, which includes agents like Bacillus anthracis, would require special handling and enhanced security, CIDRAP News reports.

The HHS published the request for comments on Wednesday in a 16 page Federal Register notice.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses are already select agents in the Select Agent Program of the US Department of Agriculture. The viruses are not on the select agent list of the HHS.

"I don't work directly with H5 viruses in the lab, but I am sure that this (issue) will be quite controversial," John J. Treanor, a flu researcher with the University of Rochester, said, according to CIDRAP News. "It is probably a consequence of the earlier issues related to the ferret studies. It's a tough call-increasing restrictions will without any doubt make it more difficult to study H5 viruses and if the new regulations required specialized facilities that are not readily available, could substantially reduce research in this area. On the other hand, H5 viruses are potentially very dangerous."

Other questions in the HHS notice relate to biocontainment measures when working with HPAI H5N1 and precautions when working with HPAI H5N1 viruses with increased transmissibility.

The public has 60 days to comment on the notice, CIDRAP News reports.