Journal's concern over bird flu research

Bird flu research
Image caption Research into the H5N1 virus has to be carried out in highly controlled conditions

The editor of a leading scientific journal has said his "default position" is to publish full details of controversial research into the bird flu virus, unless progress is made on how to circulate details of the findings to scientists.

The World Health Organization is expected to announce later its view of how to circulate the research safely to scientists studying the H5N1 virus in humans.

Dr Bruce Alberts, editor of Science, was asked by US security advisers not to publish parts of the work because of concerns it could help terrorists to develop a biological weapon.

But he says it is important to get the research out quickly to scientists and health officials monitoring the virus.

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver, he said: "Our position is that, in the absence of any mechanism to get the information to those scientists and health officials who need to know and need to protect their populations and to design new treatments and vaccines, our default position is that we have to publish in compete form."

'Academic freedom'

The controversy is centred on two research papers - one of which was submitted to Science, the other to another leading journal, Nature, last year.

They showed that the H5N1 virus could relatively easily mutate into a form that could spread rapidly among the human population.

The studies prompted the US National Security Advisory Board for Biotechnology (NSABB) to ask both journals last November to redact some sensitive parts of the research, which it believed could be used by terrorists to develop such a virus.

The request caused outcry among some scientists who believed that it was an infringement of academic freedom.

Some pointed out that the scientists had given presentations about their work at conferences and the details were already widely circulated, so redaction would have little purpose.

The scientists who carried out the research, and the journals concerned, have been considering the request and listening to suggestions as to how the research results could be redacted in the scientific journals, but distributed to bona fide researchers who urgently need the information.

The information is vital to develop a vaccine to any human form of bird flu, and it would enable surveillance teams to see if the bird flu virus was mutating into a form that could be transmissible to humans.

But such efforts have been put on hold for four months as governments, scientists and the journals decide what to do.

'Wake-up call'

The latest stage is a meeting this week held at the WHO's headquarters in Geneva.

Bruce Alberts says that the research shows that it is very easy for lethal bird flu to develop and it should act as a "real wake-up call to the world".

He added: "This is likely to happen at some point in the wild because these viruses are mutating very actively in the wild."

The NSABB comprises a group of US scientists and government security officials.

Its role is to identify research that might pose a security threat and recommend redaction where appropriate.

It is the first time that it has done so since it was created in 2005.

Dr Alberts supports the NSABB mechanism because it enables government security advisers to be informed by the scientists who sit on the board.

He suggests that for him and the editor of Nature, Dr Phil Campbell, to simply ignore the recommendations of the NSABB would undermine a system which could be considerably worse.

"Both Science magazine and Nature would both of like to support the mechanism because it's the best mechanism we're ever going to get," he says.

The sticking point though is that the scientific community and governments cannot agree the process by which an applicant for redacted material is deemed to be worthy of receiving it and who should make that judgement.

Initially the US government had suggested that US scientists, with the input of some foreign researchers, should administer the distribution process.

But this week at the WHO, international health bodies have said they should be more intimately involved and it would not work to run it through the US government.

"It is our hope that that meeting will lead to an international resolution as to how to get the information selectively to those that need to know and that would allow us to adhere to the NSABB recommendation," says Dr Alberts.

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