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Bird Flu Studies Temporarily Paused, Journals Announce

Last year, questions were raised over how much research on the dangerous H5N1 virus — or avian flu — should be published in scientific journals. H1N1 is not yet transmissible among humans, though scientists have created a strain that can pass between ferrets.

Among the questions, would published studies by scientists working to engineer a potentially human-virulent strain to study its behavior in lab animals — an important step to understanding the disease — effectively provide a recipe for creating the dangerous virus, some wondered. Would it pose a national security risk? Just how much research should be made available to the public? Could the virus escape from the lab?

In response, the U.S. government asked the journals Science and Nature to withhold details on how these strains were created.

On Friday, these journals announced that researchers have agreed to pause their research for 60 days to allow “an international forum in which the scientific community comes together to discuss and debate these issues,” according to this article in Nature. Also from the article:

Despite the positive public-health benefits these studies sought to provide, a perceived fear that the ferret-transmissible H5 HA viruses may escape from the laboratories has generated intense public debate in the media on the benefits and potential harm of this type of research. We would like to assure the public that these experiments have been conducted with appropriate regulatory oversight in secure containment facilities by highly trained and responsible personnel to minimize any risk of accidental release. Whether the ferret-adapted influenza viruses have the ability to transmit from human to human cannot be tested.

We recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks.

This move would be unprecedented, and it also raises questions about scientific freedom. Part of the ensuing scientific and policy debate, the Wall Street Journal reports, involves “whether the government was quashing scientific freedom with its request.”

Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Ray Suarez in December that all scientists and public health officials who need information on the virus would have access to the studies, should the full articles be limited to the public.

“We need to strike a balance, an appropriate balance of not impeding the science, but at the same time protecting the general public, who has concerns over the possibility that information like this may get into the hands of people who would use it for nefarious purposes,” Fauci said.

Photo by Shutter Ferret via Flickr Creative Commons

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