US & Canada

US bioethics panel approves bird flu studies

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

A US panel has approved the publication of two controversial H5N1 bird flu studies, after they were revised.

The studies, funded by the US government, created strains of the virus that spread easily among ferrets.

The US National Security Advisory Board for Biotechnology (NSABB) had asked for the studies to be edited in case terrorists could use some of the data.

The panel said the publications no longer revealed details that could lead to abuse by terrorists.

Publication of the studies were put on hold in December after the NSABB raised concerns.

Mutation fears

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.

Bird flu is believed to kill more than half the people it infects, making it much more lethal than other influenza strains.

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

In their statement explaining their decision, the NSABB said that the revised 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".

Panel member Michael Osterholm said last month he was mostly concerned about amateurs using the information.

"I am not personally worried about somebody in a cave somewhere," Mr Osterholm told the Associated Press.

"I worry about the garage scientist, about the do-your-own scientist, about the person who just wants to see if they can do it."

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.

A Geneva meeting of 22 scientists and journal representatives in February agreed that publishing only parts of the research would not be helpful, because they would not give the full context of a complete paper.

The meeting agreed to extend a temporary moratorium on research using lab-modified H5N1 viruses, but also recognised that research on naturally occurring virus "must continue".

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