U.S. Advisers Say It's Now Safe to Publish Bird Flu Studies

SATURDAY, March 31 (HealthDay News) -- Research on a mutated, more contagious form of the bird flu virus can be published in full, U.S. government biosecurity advisers said Friday, despite initial concerns that bioterrorists could use the information to start a pandemic.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity said two research papers, which have been revised since they were first offered for publication late last year, have been reworked enough so they no longer contain details that might be of value to bioterrorists. The advisers' recommendation now goes to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for a decision, the Associated Press reported.

In December, the advisers recommended against publication of the papers because doing so was potentially risky.

The two studies at the center of the debate were to be published in the journals Science and Nature late last year. The papers, which were funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, describe how the virus could mutate relatively easily into a strain that could spread rapidly among humans. The research was done by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and in the Netherlands.

Although the bird flu virus, known as H5N1, rarely infects people, it appears to be highly lethal when it does. Of about 600 known cases, more than half have been fatal. If the virus were able to spread more easily from birds to humans, experts have estimated that millions of people could die after being infected.

Friday's recommendation could end a debate that involved scientists worldwide. Many contended that full publication of the two papers would help scientists monitor potentially dangerous mutations in bird flu viruses that circulate naturally. The papers could also help test vaccines and treatments for a mutated form of the bird flu, some scientists said, the AP reported.

In February, the World Health Organization made a similar recommendation to publish the studies after a special meeting of 22 bird flu experts in Geneva, Switzerland. The meeting was convened by the WHO to discuss the "urgent issues" that have swirled around possible publication of the two bird flu studies since last November, The New York Times reported.

Most of those at the Geneva meeting felt that any theoretical terrorist risk was outweighed by the "real and present danger" of similar flu virus mutations occurring naturally in the wild, and by the need for the scientific community to share information that could help identify exactly when the virus might be developing the ability to spread more easily, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Times. Fauci represented the United States at the meeting.

The editors of both journals said they plan to publish the papers in full at a future date.

More information

For more on how the bird flu virus might be able to infect humans, visit the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

SOURCES: Associated Press; The New York Times

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