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US okays release of bird flu research

Ferret-killer research deemed to have public health benefits

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US authorities have recommended that two controversial papers describing a genetically-engineerd form of the H5N1 virus, commonly known as bird flu, can be published.

As we reported in March, The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) considered a paper by Dutch Scientist Dr. Ron Fouchier and recommended that it should only be published if it did “… not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”

That recommendation was made because the research in question explained how scientists had engineered the H5N1 virus into a form that could be transmitted aerially. Ferrets infected with the virus appear to have transmitted it to uninfected members of the same species merely by breathing on them.

Publication of research explaining how the virus was concocted, it was argued, could lead to the virus being weaponised. As that's just the kind of thing that someone wishing to unleash a pandemic would love to know, the US therefore asked the NSABB to consider whether the research should ever be published.

Scientific debate has since raged about “dual purpose” research that has potential health benefits but also has obvious security downsides.

The NSABB has now overturned its previous decision and now says, in a statement by Francis S. Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), that Fouchier's research and a paper by US-based researcher Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka can be published. The change has come after the NSABB evaluated additional data and assessed clarifications added to both document. The NIH now believes both pieces of research do “ … not appear to enable direct misuse of the research in ways that would endanger public health or national security.”

Science is yet to decide if it will publish Fouchier's research, as it awaits a ruling by Dutch authorities. ®

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