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U.S. government recommends publication of bird flu papers

April 20, 2012|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times / for the Booster Shots blog
  • Chickens await sale in Bali, Indonesia. H5N1, also known as bird flu, spreads rapidly in birds but hasn't yet affected many people. When it does strike, however, it is often deadly.
Chickens await sale in Bali, Indonesia. H5N1, also known as bird flu, spreads… (EPA/MADE NAGI )

The U.S. government will support publication of two controversial research papers, officials said Thursday. The studies report details of experiments in which the deadly H5N1 influenza virus was engineered to pass between mammals, officials said Thursday.

The decision, released via a statement by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, lands three weeks after a U.S. government advisory board that had initially recommended against publication of the two studies changed its position after further consideration. 

Members of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity voted unanimously in favor of publishing a manuscript prepared for the journal Nature by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  On a 12 to 6 vote, the group also approved publication of another paper, by Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier, in the journal Science.

In its natural form, H5N1 is commonplace in birds in Asia and parts of Europe but has not infected many people thus far. People who have gotten sick from bird flu have contracted the disease from birds directly, or after very close contact with an infected person. Once people are sickened by the virus, however, it is deadly. On April 12, the World Health Organization reported 602 confirmed cases of H5N1 infection in humans since 2003, and 355 deaths from the disease. That’s a death rate of nearly 60%.   

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked the journals to postpone publication of the studies when biosecurity experts expressed concern that the new strains, which were able to pass between ferrets, could also pass through the air between people if somehow they were released outside of the lab or re-engineered by rogue scientists who had learned how to make the viruses from the controversial research papers.  

Many virologists, in turn, argued that making the research public was necessary to understanding what makes some flus highly communicable — and, perhaps, for creating effective strategies for fighting an outbreak.

Collins’ statement acknowledged both sets of concerns. “This line of research is critically important, because it will help public health officials understand, detect and defend against the emergence of H5N1 as a human threat, a development that could pose a pandemic scenario,” the statement said, while noting that “certain information obtained through such studies has the potential for harmful purposes.”

In the end, however, the government concluded that the information included in the studies “does not appear to enable direct misuse of the research.”

The Dutch government, in the meantime, has restricted Fouchier from discussing his work, citing export laws. It is expected to convene a meeting Monday to discuss what its next step will be.

Click here to read about bird flu research in the Los Angeles Times.

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