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Deadly Bird Flu Research to Be Paused Over Concern About Risks

Researchers creating a more lethal strain of bird flu said in a letter they will pause for 60 days to discuss the risks of releasing their findings.

The scientists engineered genetic changes to make a strain known as H5N1 more contagious among ferrets. The information, which may aid scientists combating a more lethal virus in humans, could be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands, a U.S. biosecurity panel has said.

“We realize that organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work,” the 39 scientists said in an letter announcing their decision in the journals Science and Nature.

The researchers led by Ron Fouchief of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, were asked last month to censor details of their work that may allow people to make the more lethal strain by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.

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 in Atlanta. Since 2003, more than 500 people have been infected with H5N1 in more than a dozen countries. About 60 percent have died.

Most cases have resulted from people having direct or close contact with infected poultry, according to the agency. The virus has been found in Asia, Africa, Europe, Indonesia and Egypt, according to the CDC. The U.S. in 2004 issued a ban on poultry from affected countries.

“Despite the positive public-health benefits these studies sought to provide, a perceived fear that the ferret-transmissible H5 HA viruses may escape from the laboratories has generated intense public debate in the media on the benefits and potential harm of this type of research,” the scientists said.

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