Health

Bird flu research censorship backed by U.S. panel

Details of experiments to create a potentially more dangerous version of the H5N1 bird flu virus should be censored, a U.S. science advisory board says.

Threat to humanity from pathogen warrants caution

Details of experiments to create a potentially more dangerous version of the H5N1 bird flu virus should be censored, a U.S. science advisory board says.

Members of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity explained why the changes to the bird flu virus are a concern in Tuesday’s online issues of the journals Science and Nature.

Experiments testing whether bird flu viruses adapted to ferrets have the ability to transmit from human to human are controversial. (Sushanta Das/Associated Press)

They cited fears that the new version of the virus could pose a bigger threat to humanity if it escaped from the lab or was used for bioterrorism.

"A pandemic by such a pathogen could reasonably be concluded to cause such devastation that it should be prevented at all costs," Paul Keim, the group's acting chair, said in a commentary published in mBio, the journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

Earlier this month, the scientists at Erasmus Medical College in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin-Madison agreed to stop their experiments for 60 days to allow time for discussions on how to balance the risks and benefits of publishing their research.

The experiments aimed to see whether influenza-viruses adapted to ferrets have the ability to transmit from human to human. Ferrets are considered the best animal model for human infection with influenza.

The panelists said they found the potential of public harm from publishing details of the experiments to be "of unusually high magnitude."

Scientist disappointed

The panel acknowledged that there are clear benefits to alerting the public to the potential threat and working on greater preparedness, saying it concluded that communicating the basic result without methods or details maximize the benefits and minimizes the risks.

The journal Science has agreed to hold off publication until March. The journal Nature has not said its plans.

One of the researchers, Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier, said he was disappointed by the published statement.

"I was hoping for an explanation of the risks of communicating the results of our study via normal publication. There is none," he said in an email to The Canadian Press.

"Our information is useless to small bioterrorist groups, and larger organizations and rogue countries can replicate our work without our manuscript."

The group compared the decision to what physicists faced in the 1940s on communicating nuclear weapons research and to how the scientific community agreed to a voluntary moratorium on biotechnology research until guidelines on safe and responsible conduct were developed.

The U.S. panel was formed after a series of anthrax attacks in the United States in 2001.

With files from The Canadian Press

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