'Dangerous' bird flu research available to all

Two leading scientific journals are likely to publish in full two controversial papers detailing a new version of the bird flu virus that may be transmissible between humans despite a US federal advisory body warning of its potentially "catastrophic" misuse by "malevolent individuals, organisations or governments".

February 23, 2012

The news followed recommendations of a panel of experts convened last week by the World Health Organisation.

Controversy has surrounded the two papers, by academics based in the US and the Netherlands, since they were accepted for publication - one in Science and one in Nature - last year. They detail the creation of a new version of the H5N1 influenza virus that is transmissible between ferrets - and possibly humans - unlike strains currently found in nature.

In December, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended that the papers be published only in redacted form, with access to full versions restricted to legitimate researchers. It said deliberate misuse of the research could have "catastrophic" consequences.

But the WHO panel, which included lead researchers on the two studies as well as other flu experts and senior figures from journals and funders, concluded that the necessary mechanism for restricted dissemination did not exist. It also said research into creating more transmissible forms of flu viruses should continue in order to protect public health.

The WHO panel said the papers should be published in full after a pause to allow "significant public concern" to be assuaged. It also recommended the continuation of a voluntary moratorium on H5N1 research to allow a safety review of labs to be conducted.

Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, said he would comply with the WHO's recommendations. Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, said the journals would await instruction about when to publish the full manuscript.

But he urged the WHO and governments to work out a mechanism for restricted distribution so that "the next time this kind of thing happens, we have a mechanism already established".


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