Health and Environment|

Bird flu research dispute as US terror fears rise

The researchers behind two contentious bird flu studies have been requested by US authorities to edit key details after a federal advisory board suggested that the data might inspire terrorists. The documents show how a variant of bird flu may be easily passed between ferrets.

Editors from the journals Nature and Science said they would not agree to the edits until they are guaranteed that the data would be available to researchers. A spokesman for federal health authorities said that such an assurance system was being drafted.

The journal Science says that at least one group of scientists have already edited their paper due to the government recommendation. Researcher Albert Osterhaus said that his team disagreed with the recommendation from the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB).

However, Mr Osterhaus, who argues that the information must be widely accessible, said that an editorial explaining his group’s deference to the panel is just a condition for the report’s publication in Science. Another research team from the University of Wisconsin, Madison will also hesitant about submitting their revised report to Nature, according to a university spokesman.

Though bird flu is deadly, its impact is limited due to its inability to be transmitted between humans. However, the NSABB said that, due to the virus mutations in recent studies, there is now a higher potential for it to be infectious among humans. The board called the lab-created version an “extremely serious” threat to global public health.

The NSABB has recommended that the key conclusions be published, leaving out details that might enable the replication of the experiments by terrorists. Editors at the journals asked for a clearer plan from federal authorities about how the potentially edited reports could be accessed by responsible scientists who request for legitimate information.

Science editor Bruce Alberts said that many scientists working within the influenza community possess a bona fide need for the details of this research project in order to shield the public from the virus. Mr Alberts stated that the journal’s response would depend heavily upon further steps made by US government officials to put forth a transparent plan to guarantee that scientists could access the information.

An editor from Nature said that the full details of all scientific analyses of flu viruses must be available to researchers for the sake of public health. The federal request is unprecedented for the panel, which was assembled during the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Anthony Fauci from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) stated that a system to give people with proper credentials access to the research was now being assembled. He said it was expected to be put together in time for the journals’ publication dates in January, saying it was wise to restrict key data to those directly working in public health programmes.





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