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U.S. Advisers Explain Call to Censor Bird Flu Research

TUESDAY, Jan. 31 -- Concerns that research about a genetically mutated form of bird flu could escape from labs or fall into the hands of bioterrorists led U.S. scientific advisers to ask two prominent journals to withhold key details on the groundbreaking research, the advisers explained Tuesday.

The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) acknowledged that experiments on the potential threat of H5N1 bird flu "could lead to greater preparedness and potential development of novel strategies for disease control."

But, releasing the complete research and results of two scientific papers in full in the journals Nature and Science could expose the United States and other nations to harm, the NSABB said, explaining its request to withhold some data from the public.

The NSABB's main concern "is that publishing these experiments in detail would provide information that could help some person, organization or government to develop similar mammal-adapted influenza A/H5N1 viruses for harmful purposes," the advisers said in a statement Tuesday.

Such research that could be used for good or bad purposes is called "dual use research," the researchers explained. "We are now confronted by a potent, real-world example," they said.

"Highly pathogenic avian influenza A/H5N1 infection of humans has been a serious public-health concern since its identification in 1997 in Asia," the advisers added. "This is an unprecedented recommendation for work in the life sciences, and our analysis was conducted with careful consideration both of the potential benefits of publication and of the potential harm that could occur from such a precedent.

"By recommending that the basic result be communicated without methods or details, we believe that the benefits to society are maximized and the risks minimized," they added. "Although scientists pride themselves on the creation of scientific literature that defines careful methodology that would allow other scientists to replicate experiments, we do not believe that widespread dissemination of the methodology in this case is a responsible action."

The debate came to light earlier in January when the NSABB asked the editors of the two journals to publish the research in "redacted" form, meaning with key elements blocked out.

The researchers behind the studies agreed last month to a 60-day moratorium on the controversial research into the modified avian flu virus that has been shown to be more transmissible among mammals.

Although the study authors believe their research has a public health benefit, they acknowledge the fear of some governments and others that the genetically altered virus could escape from labs and infect people or fall into the hands of bioterrorists.

This fear has caused a highly unusual debate among governments and scientists over the benefits and risks of the research.

Some scientists and biosecurity experts worry that such a mutated virus could trigger a human pandemic that might rival the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918-19 that killed an estimated 20 million to 40 million people worldwide.

In a letter appearing Jan. 20 in the journals Nature and Science, 38 researchers, including Yoshihiro Kawaoka from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Ron Fouchier, from Erasmus University in the Netherlands, explained that their research with ferrets has already shown that the virus can be genetically manipulated to make it easier to transmit among mammals. No research has been done with humans because it would be unethical.

"No experiments with live H5N1 or H5HA reassortant viruses already shown to be transmissible in ferrets will be conducted during this time. We will continue to assess the transmissibility of H5N1 influenza viruses that emerge in nature and pose a continuing threat to human health," the scientists wrote.

Ferrets are useful research animals because they transmit viruses much the same way humans do.

The research was being temporarily stopped, the scientists said, because they need additional time to share with the scientific community the research's benefits to governments and public health organizations should the virus mutate naturally.

More information

For more on pandemic flu, visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

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Posted: January 2012