Killer flu doctors: US censorship is a danger to science

Dutch lab that created deadly bird flu virus attacks America for redacting its research.

Steve Connor
Monday 16 January 2012 01:00

America should not be allowed to dominate the debate over who controls sensitive scientific information that could be misused in biowarfare terrorism, say the scientists who created a highly dangerous form of bird-flu virus in a study that has been partially censored by the US government.

Ron Fouchier and Ab Osterhaus of Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam accept recommendations by the US government's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which said key details of their US-funded research should not be published because bioterrorists may use the information to cause a bird-flu pandemic.

"But we do question whether it is appropriate to have one country dominate a discussion that has an impact on scientists and public-health officials worldwide," Fouchier and Osterhaus write in the journal Nature.

"It is not clear whether an international discussion would lead to different recommendations ... We don't know the worldwide opinion until a group of experts from all parts of the globe is formed. An issue this big should not be decided by one country, but all of us," they say.

As The Independent reported in December, Dr Fouchier and colleagues created a strain of H5N1 bird-flu virus that can be spread by airborne transmission between laboratory ferrets, the standard animal "model" for human influenza. They did it to see how easy it would be for the virus to mutate into a form that could cause a pandemic.

Details of the genetic mutations could prove vital for scientists engaged in the early-warning surveillance of new strains of flu virus, as well as researchers involved in creating new vaccines and anti-viral drugs. But the details could be misused by rogue states or by biowarfare terrorists with access to rudimentary scientific knowledge and fairly standard laboratory equipment. Previously, it was thought the H5N1 bird-flu virus, which appeared in birds in 1996, could only be transmitted to people by close contact with infected poultry, rather than by airborne transmission from one person to another.

If the H5N1 bird-flu strain mutated into an airborne form, it could result in one of the deadliest pandemics in history, where more than half of those infected die – a mortality rate that would dwarf other flu outbreaks.

So far, most of the 600 or so deaths from H5N1 have resulted from close contact between people and poultry and have occurred almost exclusively in Asia and the Middle East where keeping domestic poultry is common. Dr Fouchier and Professor Osterhaus were among experts asked by Nature to give opinions on recommendations of the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which wants key details of their study, such as the precise genetic sequence of the mutated virus, to be withheld from publication.

Lynn Klotz of the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington and Ed Sylvester of Arizona State University say the chances of a laboratory strain of H5N1 escaping into the wild remain high if it is stored in conventional flu-virus labs. "Regulators should not be sitting idly by, while the threat of a man-made pandemic looms," the scientists say.

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