US asks scientists to withdraw recipe for lab-bred bird flu

Posted by Emma Woollacott

The US government has asked the authors of two terrifying studies of bird flu to redact them heavily, fearing the information could be used by terrorists.

The two papers, scheduled to appear in Nature and Science, describe how scientists were able to create mutations in the H5N1 bird flu virus that enabled  it to spread through the air, while remaining just as lethal.

The Dutch team which is publishing the Science paper says the mutations could easily happen in nature, and says it carried out the work in order to help avoid future outbreaks.

But the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) says it's concerned that the details of the research could be 'misused for harmful purposes.

"Following its review, the NSABB decided to recommend that HHS ask the authors of the reports and the editors of the journals that were considering publishing the reports to make changes in the manuscripts," it says in a statement.

"Due to the importance of the findings to the public health and research communities, the NSABB recommended that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm."

It says it plans to find a way that the details of the research can be released to those with a legitimate need, in the aid of public health.

The Dutch researchers say that they have reservations about the request, but will do as they've been asked.

However, they say: "Confidentiality is almost impossible given the fact that the data has to be shared with hundreds of researchers and governments. Furthermore, academic and press freedom will be at stake as a result of the recommendation.  This has never happened before."

The University of Wisconsin team whose paper is scheduled to appear in Nature say much the same.

Science magazine says that it has concern about withholding important information from responsible researchers.

"Many scientists within the influenza community have a bona fide need to know the details of this research in order to protect the public, especially if they currently are working with related strains of the virus," says editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts in a statement.

"Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the US government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety."