Controversial research papers on mutated bird flu okay to publish, says U.S biosecurity panel

  • Lethality of the mutated virus is less than originally feared

Two controversial papers on bird flu will be published by scientific journals this year after the go-ahead was given by a U.S biosecurity panel.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) took a stand over the papers last year out of concerns that details of the studies - which induced mutations in the H5N1 avian flu virus that made it transmissible among mammals by air rather than by close physical contact - could be used for bioterrorism.

Explaining its decision, announced last Friday, the NSABB said in a statement that ‘the data described in the revised manuscripts do not appear to provide information that would immediately enable misuse of the research in ways that would endanger public health or national security’.

Green light: Papers on the H5N1 avian flu virus will be published in Nature and Science this year

Green light: Papers on the H5N1 avian flu virus will be published in Nature and Science this year

The NSABB had recommended the two papers not be published in full by the journals where they were under consideration, Nature and Science.

Critics of the recommendation raised fears that important science was being censored.

The ensuing debate raised questions about whether the research should have been done at all, as well as whether current national and international rules on biosafety and biosecurity are sufficient to protect the public from dangerous microbes.

The biosecurity panel spent two days last week considering the papers. Both papers describe how scientists altered several genes of natural, or wild-type, H5N1 in a way that allowed it to spread from the airways of infected ferrets to other ferrets caged nearby.

So far, the natural form of H5N1 has infected tens of millions of ducks, geese, chickens, and other birds. But the only people to be infected - 598, of whom 353 have died - were those who came into close contact with the flocks.

The board was persuaded by an additional benefit of publishing the research - by informing countries where H5N1 is endemic, it would allow scientists there to be on the lookout for the mutations that make the virus more transmissible.

Deadly: The natural form of H5N1 has infected tens of millions of birds

Deadly: The natural form of H5N1 has infected tens of millions of birds

‘We had new information, confidential information, about benefits of this research, and we also had confidential information about the risks involved,’ said Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University, who is the acting chairman of the panel.

‘And the balance began to change.’

Ron Fouchier, who led the Erasmus experiments, said the NSABB decision was ‘very much to our pleasure.’

He and Keim stressed that nothing would be censored in the paper.    

Instead, the paper to be published by Science will include ‘clear and explicit’ information about the lethality of the mutated virus, which is less than the NSABB originally believed.

In other words, although the genetic mutations made H5N1 more transmissible among mammals, they apparently also made it less deadly.  

Fouchier and Keim agreed that the 11th-hour recommendation last December against releasing the papers was not how biosecurity concerns should be addressed.    

Instead, under the new U.S. policy, such studies will be reviewed in a ‘cradle to grave’ way, they explained, suggesting that potentially dangerous research will receive a more intensive review before it is so far along as to be publishable.    

Asked whether the NSABB had misunderstood the original papers, Keim said it had spent more than 200 hours reviewing them and faced enormous pressure from all sides - from the journals, from the researchers and from the National Institutes of Health, which funded both studies - to act quickly.

‘I think this is not the process that should be used for reviewing these types of papers in the future,’ he said.

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