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Bird flu studies to be published

3rd April 2012

A panel of ethics experts in the United States has given the go-ahead for two studies into different strains of the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus.

bird flu vaccine production

Publication of the studies was delayed following concerns that the information they contained could help people produce a biological weapon for terrorist purposes.

Researchers working on the two US government-funded studies developed strains of bird flu that can spread easily between ferrets.

Until now, cases of bird flu in humans have mostly been traced to contact with poultry, and the virus has not yet mutated into a strain that is easily transmissible between people.

Previously, the US National Security Advisory Board for Biotechnology (NSABB), had requested that the cases be censored before appearing in the journals Science and Nature.

The panel decided that the studies in their present form no longer contained material that would be useful to terrorists.

The aim of the papers was to demonstrate how easily H5N1 could mutate into a form that could spread quickly among people and become the next pandemic.

More than half of the people who have caught bird flu have died.

The papers will now be published in a slightly edited form that satisfies the security standards of the NSABB.

The agency said in a statement that the papers "do not appear to provide information that would immediately enable misuse of the research in ways that would endanger public health or national security".

Michael Osterholm, a member of bioethics panel, said the information could be dangerous in the hands of amateurs.

He said DIY scientists working in their back garden or garage out of personal interest could be potentially more dangerous than terrorists.

The request to edit the papers met with concern among many scientists, who saw it as an unnecessary attempt to censor scientific research by the government.

They said that the same material had already been presented by the research team at conferences, and that the details of the mutated virus were already available in the public domain.

Journal representatives and researchers met in Geneva in February over the controversy, and concluded that publishing only parts of the papers would not be scientifically useful to journal readers as they lacked the full context of the research.

Other critics said at the time that the move could hamper attempts to develop a vaccine against bird flu.

It agreed to prolong a temporary ban on further research using viruses modified in the laboratory, but said that research on naturally occurring viruses must go on.

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