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Bird Flu Virus Papers Approved for Print

Ashley Yeager

Two papers on H5N1 that were held from publications will appear shortly in Science and Nature.

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A U.S. advisory committee on biosecurity has given the OK to two authors to publish the full versions of their separate controversial flu studies, noting that the research will not provide fodder for any potential flu pandemic plotted by bioterrorists.

In December 2011, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) asked Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin not to publish their research on the H5N1 bird flu virus. In that request, the committee asked the researchers to remove from their papers the experimental details and the data describing the mutations they made to the virus, which made it more easily transmittable among mammals.

A U.S. advisory committee on biosecurity has given the OK to two authors to publish the full versions of their separate controversial flu studies. Source: CDC/ Cynthias Goldsmith, Jacqueline Katz, Sherif R. Zaki.

But on March 30, the NSABB reversed its decision. In a statement, the panel said that the data "do not appear to provide information that would immediately enable misuse of the research in ways that would endanger public health or national security."

Bruce Alberts, the editor-in-chief of Science, applauded the decisions. In a statement about the NSABB's decision, he said that the results "represent an advance in basic research into virus transmission. Making the complete research results available via peer-reviewed publication in Science will help responsible influenza researchers design anti-viral drugs and vaccines to combat outbreaks, as well as make possible improved international surveillance to protect public health and safety.”

In the papers, the two groups describe how they had changed the H5N1 virus, making it transmittable among mammals through the air instead of through physical contact. The NSABB, which advises the Health and Human Services Department, made the request to revise the papers because the researchers' work provided a possible design for starting a H5N1 flu pandemic. Officials are concerned about the spread of the virus because more than 60% of those who become ill with it have died, based on information from the National Institutes of Health.

At a Feb. 29 American Society for Microbiology meeting on biodefense and emerging diseases, Fouchier argued that the lab-manipulated virus does not spread like a pandemic or a seasonal influenza virus yet. Also, he said that although the virus produces disease in chickens, it is not as infectious in mammals. Most humans would have cross-protective immunity from early infections with seasonal influenza, he said.

Although the NSABB has approved the papers to be published in full, Fouchier and Kawaoka have, in response to the controversy, revised their papers. In their revisions, they make it clear, for example, that airborne particles of the mutant virus did not kill the ferrets Fouchier's team infected with it, a result that was misconceived by the NSABB.

Fouchier's paper will appear in Science; Kawaoka's in Nature. Both manuscripts will include the full genetic sequence of mutant strains, along with other details. The manuscripts will still go through the process of peer review, but nothing will be redacted from either paper, according to the NSABB decision.

Keywords:  H5N1 biosecurity