Research on Bird Flu May Be Censored on Security Concern

Scientists agreed not to publish certain details of research showing how lethal bird flu can be made contagious after a U.S. biosecurity panel asked that it be kept secret for security reasons.

The study at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam described the genetic changes needed to make the H5N1 avian influenza strain spread easily among ferrets and potentially people. The research is under review for publication in the journal Science. It was commissioned by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the center said yesterday in a statement on its website.

Knowing the genetic sequence of a deadly, infectious strain may enable it to be recreated through reverse engineering. The censorship was requested by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, formed in the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks and to advise the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The panel called for certain data to be kept secret after determining the risks of publishing it outweigh the benefits, the Erasmus Medical Center said.

“Of all the potential infectious disease threats we have out there, H5N1 is by far the most scary and the most lethal,” Malik Peiris, chair of virology at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, said by telephone. The research “shows that the H5N1 influenza virus can acquire transmissibility for humans; the work is done in ferrets, but that’s the best surrogate for human transmission.”

The Dutch scientists, led by Ron Fouchier, passed the H5N1 strain between ferrets in a chain of transmission that enabled the virus to evolve and become better adapted to its mammalian hosts.

Aerosol Transmission

“We have discovered that this is indeed possible, and more easily than previously thought,” Fouchier said in a Nov. 27 press release. “In the laboratory, it was possible to change H5N1 into an aerosol transmissible virus that can easily be rapidly spread through the air. This process could also take place in a natural setting.”

A similar study led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, from the University of Wisconsin, is under review for publication in Nature, the Washington Post reported yesterday.

‘Regard to Severity’

“The H5N1 virus is in a league of its own with regard to severity in humans,” Peiris said. “If such a virus becomes pandemic and spreads, the world will come to a halt, there’s no question about it.”

Avian flu is a serious public health concern with the potential to cause a deadly pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2003, more than 500 people have been infected with the H5N1 strain and about 60 percent have died, according to the Atlanta-based agency.

Most people became infected through contact with sick birds and the virus isn’t easily transmitted from person to person, according to the World Health Organization.

Editors of Science are taking the panel’s request seriously and will be evaluating how best to proceed, Bruce Alberts, the journal’s editor-in-chief, said in a statement.

Science’s response is contingent on the government developing a plan so withheld information can be provided to researchers who request it “as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety,” Alberts said.

‘Have Reservations’

“The researchers have reservations about this recommendation but will observe it,” the Dutch center said in the statement. The research data may be shared with the scientific community, subject to an obligation of confidentiality, it said.

Nature recognizes the motivation behind the U.S. panel’s unprecedented recommendations, said Philip Campbell, the journal’s editor in chief, according to an article posted on its website. It’s discussing with interested parties how “appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled,” he said.

“I am not convinced that withholding scientific know-how will prevent the highly unlikely scenario of misuse of information, but I am worried that it may stunt our progress towards the improved control of this infectious disease,” said Wendy Barclay, Imperial College’s Chair in Influenza Virology, said in distributed comments from New Zealand’s Science Media Centre.

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