Biosecurity Board Assessing Studies on Altered Bird Flu Virus

A U.S. biosecurity panel is assessing whether two separate studies that altered the avian flu virus should be published given concerns that such information could be abused by terrorists to create a biological weapon, the Science Insider reported last week (see GSN, Nov. 28).

Dutch molecular virology scientist Ron Fouchier submitted to the U.S. journal Science a summary of his research on how a strain of H5N1 became able to be transferred through the air after it was transmitted between ferrets on 10 occasions. The lethal virus currently only rarely infects humans. However, strains of the virus that can be transmitted between ferrets has been found to have the same capability in humans, according to the scientist.

"That could be different this time, but I wouldn't bet any money on it," Fouchier said.

Fouchier conducted his research with funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which wanted to learn whether the bird flu could ever cause a human pandemic.

Science sent the Fouchier study to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to assess whether the paper was safe to publish. The board is reviewing the article as well as a similar study into H5N1 headed by University of Wisconsin virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka that was submitted to another publication, unidentified scientists said.

The Kawaoka paper showed similar results to the Fouchier study.

Biosecurity board Chairman Paul Keim said he was not permitted to talk about individual papers but said the panel was likely to release a statement shortly and would also probably offer advisements on these types of studies. The panel has "worked very hard and very intensely for several weeks on studies about H5N1 transmissibility in mammals," he said. "We'll have a lot to say."

"I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one," said Keim, a microbial geneticist and anthrax specialist. "I don't think anthrax is scary at all compared to this."

"This work should never have been done," said Rutgers University molecular biologist Richard Ebright.

Not everyone agreed.

"These studies are very important," said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. The researchers "have the full support of the influenza community," given that their work could aid public health efforts against the virus.

Keim said he thinks that the potential ramifications of dual-use studies should be assessed in the very early stages of the project.

"The process of identifying dual use of concern is something that should start at the very first glimmer of an experiment," he said. "You shouldn't wait until you have submitted a paper before you decide it's dangerous. Scientists and institutions and funding agencies should be looking at this. The journals and the journals' reviewers should be the last resort."

The biosecurity board can request but not order that the studies not be published. Ebright, despite his opposition to the research, said "you cannot post hoc suppress work that was done and completed in a nonclassified context. The scientific community would not stand for that."

Alternatively, highly sensitive studies could be published but with specific types of information omitted, Osterholm said.

"We don't want to give bad guys a road map on how to make bad bugs really bad," he said (Martin Enserink, Science Insider, Nov. 23).

December 1, 2011
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A U.S. biosecurity panel is assessing whether two separate studies that altered the avian flu virus should be published given concerns that such information could be abused by terrorists to create a biological weapon, the Science Insider reported last week.

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