A U.S. scientific advisory board has asked two scientific journals – Nature and Science – to publish redacted versions of two controversial studies on bird flu virus because of fears of bioterrorism.
The studies, by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist, and Dr. Ron Fouchier and colleagues from the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam detail the creation of an H5N1 avian flu virus that could potentially spread quickly among humans
The government-funded studies were aimed to find out how deadly H5N1 bird flu could mutate to become a bigger threat to humans. Two labs were successful in creating bird flu strains that could easily spread to people. That’s when the government took the unprecedented step to ask the scientists to keep the details under wraps.
The research showed that it was easier than scientists expected for bird flu to evolve in a way that lets it spread between at least some mammals. The virus stores are being kept in high-security labs as researchers at the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin-Madison prepare to publish their findings in leading scientific journals to share their findings with colleagues so they could build it on it with more studies
But bioterrorism advisers to the government recommended that the journals Science and Nature publish only the general findings, not the full blueprint for these man-made strains. The journals and researchers are mulling their next steps.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious diseases chief at the government’s National Institutes of Health.
Science editor-in-chief Dr. Bruce Alberts wants the government to set up a system where certain international researchers – like those in bird flu-prone countries like China and Indonesia – will be able to get the full genetic recipe for these lab-bred strains.
Alberts believed this to be the first time the government requested secrecy from legitimate public health research.
Avian flu has caused outbreaks in wild birds and poultry in a number of countries around the world. But it only occasionally infects people who have close contact with infected poultry. It’s known to have sickened nearly 600 people over the past decade and it’s deadly, killing about 60 percent of the time.
Since the virus was first detected in 1997, about 600 people have contracted it, and more than half have died. Nearly all have caught it from birds, and most cases have been in Asia. Scientists have watched the virus, worrying that if it developed the ability to spread easily from person to person, it could create one of the deadliest pandemics ever
The threat is especially large in and around Southeast Asia.
the NYT reported Wednesday that Hong Kong health workers began slaughtering more than 17,000 chickens in a poultry market after one was found to be infected with bird flu. Hong Kong’s health officials raised the territory’s bird flu alert to “serious,” and closed the market.
“There is clearly a public health threat that has been lingering and smoldering with regard to H5N1 for several years,” said Fauci. He said that a naturally occurring flu outbreak is much more likely than any man-made one.
“Nature is the worst bioterrorist,” he said. “We know that through history.”
Dutch lead researcher Dr. Ron Fouchier argued his discovery showed what mutations to watch for so “we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late.”
Erasmus Medical Center said its researchers were complying with the U.S. request but added in a statement, “Academic and press freedom will be at stake as a result of the recommendation. This has never happened before.”
The government is quite naturally concerned that if terrorists get access to this scientific information, they might use it forge new bio-weapons. Yet some in the scientific community worry that, by hampering the sharing of new knowledge, the government will slow development of medical countermeasures that would be needed if a pandemic broke out.