US Asks Journals to Conceal Bird Flu Research Details

Posted December 21st, 2011 at 1:00 pm (UTC-5)
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Two scientific journals are considering whether to publish details of controversial influenza research after a U.S. advisory committee asked them to withhold some information because of security concerns.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a U.S. government entity that monitors biological threats, on Tuesday asked the U.S.-based journal Science and the British journal Nature to hold back details about the creation of a new, lethal strain of H5N1 bird flu.

The new strain, created by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, is easily passed between ferrets, small mammals that respond to influenza in much the same way humans do.

Both sets of researchers got funding for their studies from the U.S. government.

Experts are divided on whether creating such a dangerous strain of bird flu was a good idea. The researchers say they want to study how the virus changes so they will know the signs that a more deadly strain is developing. But critics say publishing their methodology could allow potential terrorists to re-create the virus and use it for harm.

However, other medical researchers object to any government censorship to scientific studies.

The journals have responded cautiously to the committee's request, saying they will consider concealing some details if the U.S. government can establish a system for releasing the redacted parts to legitimate researchers.

H5N1 is not transmitted easily among humans; it is usually contracted by contact with infected birds. But it is highly lethal. The United Nations says of about 600 people who have contracted the disease since 1997, about 60 percent have died. Scientists fear the virus could develop a strain that passes easily from person to person, which could cause a pandemic.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity was formed in response to several 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, in which five people died and 17 others were made ill. The FBI called the attacks the worst biological attacks in U.S. history. The prime suspect in the case, Bruce Ivins, committed suicide in 2008.