Federal panel asks science journals to censor reports on how to make a deadlier ‘bird flu’

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Courtesy of Washington Post:

By , Tuesday, December 20, 1:39 PM

The federal government on Tuesday asked two science journals to censor parts of two papers describing how researchers produced what appears to be a far more dangerous version of the “bird flu” virus that has circulated in Asia for more than a decade.The request is a first for the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a panel created after the anthrax bioterror attacks of 2001 to counsel the government on biological research that has potential to be used for nefarious purposes.

After weeks of reviewing the manuscripts the board recommended their “general conclusions” be published but “not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”

The board — 23 scientists and public-health experts from outside the government, and 18 from within — cannot stop publication. Its advice goes to the Department of Health and Human Services, whose leaders will ask the journals — Science, published in Washington, and Nature, published in London — to comply.

In the experiments, university-based scientists in the Netherlands and Wisconsin created a version of the so-called H5N1 influenza virus that is highly lethal and easily transmissible between ferrets, the lab animals that most closely mirror human beings in flu research.

The research was paid for by the National Institutes of Health as part of a large portfolio of research aimed at “pandemic preparedness.” The NSABB recommendation, however, puts the federal government in a distinctly controversial and embarrassing position. It calls for a limit on the free exchange of information — something viewed as anathema by many scientists. It also suggests there was not sufficient forethought about what might happen if the government-funded experiments actually worked.

“This has been a total public relations nightmare,” said one person familiar with the board’s workings during the past month.

About 600 people — mostly in China, Thailand, and Indonesia — have become ill from H5N1 influenza virus since 1997 and about 60 percent have died. In most cases, the illness occurred after direct contact with infected birds, as the virus is passed from person-to-person with great difficulty.

Because of its extreme virulence, H5N1 has been the flu strain most feared as the source of a possible influenza pandemic. What it lacked were the genetic changes permitting easy transmission by coughing, sneezing and touch. The new research has apparently produced those changes for the first time — at least in ferrets.

Exactly how the key new mutations occurred is unclear, although it seems in part to be the product of chance. Influenza virus is constantly changing in small ways, which is one of the reasons vaccines against it have to be reformulated every few years. Simply infecting ferrets enough times with the virus may have been enough to allow mutations favoring easy transmissibility to emerge by chance and then be “saved” by natural selection.

In a recent press report in Science, Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center said the new strain had five mutations in two genes. All the genes had previously been seen in flu viruses but never together, making the new strain in effect a “semi-synthetic” pathogen.

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