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Advisory Board Recommends Withholding Bird Flu Research Details

Advisory Board Recommends Withholding Bird Flu Research DetailsFor the first time ever, a US government advisory board has asked several scientific journals to withhold details of experiments out of concern that terrorists could use the information in question to create deadly pathogens and trigger epidemics.
 
As explained in a New York Times article last week, in the experiments, researchers in the US and the Netherlands made genetic modifications in the H5N1 bird flu virus so that it was easily transmissible among ferrets, which are frequently used to model the spread of viruses among humans. Since the virus generally has to be caught from birds, it infects humans rarely, though it is extremely deadly when it does. Since it was first detected in 1997, the virus has infected about 600 people, almost entirely in Asia, and over half have died.
 
Upon reviewing the studies, which will be published in the journals Science and Nature, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) requested that details that would allow others to replicate the experiments be omitted. According to the Times, the editor of Science, Bruce Alberts, PhD, said the journal was seriously considering the board’s request and would most likely agree to leave out some details, though only if the government set up a system to get the relevant information to scientists who needed it, including those looking into how to protect against bird flu if it were to develop the ability to spread among humans.
 
Both studies in question—one carried out at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam—received US government funding through the National Institutes of Health. The NSABB was established in 2004 in reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax attacks that followed. Previously, the board considered requesting that details be withheld from reports on genetic sequencing of the H1N1 virus that killed up to 100 million people in the 1918 flu pandemic, but ultimately recommended publication without limits.
 
In an interview with the Times, the leader of the Dutch research team, Ron A. M. Fouchier, PhD, emphasized the difficulty of recreating his team’s work for those without high-level skills: “You need a very sophisticated specialist team and sophisticated facilities to do this. … You could not do this work in your garage if you are a terrorist organization. But what you can do is get viruses out of the wild and grow them in your garage. There are terrorist opportunities that are much, much easier than to genetically modify H5N1 bird flu virus that are probably much more effective.”
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