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Tuesday 25th June 2019

Deadly bird flu research may be censored

21st February 2012

Fears over possible biological terrorism are delaying the publication of research into the H5N1 avian influenza virus.


Experts have yet to reach agreement on how to release their findings without placing a weapon into the hands of potential terrorists.

Experts at the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva will discuss the issue further before deciding whether or not to release the controversial report in full.

The two papers sparked a row after they were submitted to the journals Science and Nature last year.

In them, researchers detail how the virus could mutate relatively easily into a form that could be transmitted easily between humans. Currently, human cases of bird flu are usually traceable to contact with poultry or wild birds.

Fearing the misuse of the information, the US National Security Advisory Board for Biotechnology asked the journals to censor some sensitive parts of the research.

It is a principle of modern scientific research that scientists should publish all their findings so they can be openly debated.

However, some believe that key details should only be available to a carefully vetted audience, in case they are misused.

The researchers say it is crucial for scientists and policy makers to understand how the virus can mutate, if they are to prepare for a potentially devastating pandemic, and that scientific journals play a key role in disseminating information.

However, security experts warn that too much information in the public domain will create another weapon for terrorists.

Moreover, scientists fear that any kind of control over what they publish will set a precedent by which governments may continue to censor their community and compromise academic freedom.

Many of the details in the report have already been widely circulated in the research community and even presented at conferences, so some argue that censoring them in printed form will have little effect.

Without the information contained in the reports, it will be impossible to develop a vaccine against any human form of H5N1. It will also hamper surveillance teams on the ground who are monitoring the virus for signs of possible mutation.

So far, experts in Geneva have agreed that publishing only parts of the research would not be helpful, as much of the context would be missing.

They have, however, agreed to a temporary ban on lab-modified bird flu viruses, which are transmissible between humans, agreeing to confine their research only to naturally occurring specimens.

WHO's assistant director-general of health security and environment Keji Fukada said there was a high level of concern over the high mortality rate -- around 60% -- among humans infected with the virus.

He said continued surveillance and research were of "critical importance".

Further meetings are scheduled in two months' time, when experts will assess what information is already available in the public domain, and whether the research papers would in fact reveal anything new.

Both journals have said they want to publish the research in full, but are prepared to wait to do so, or consider alternative distribution methods, in the case of Science.

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