Avian-flu research silenced


DEBATE HAS been heating up over whether details of lab-modified avian-flu viruses that appear to spread readily between mammals should be made available in full in scientific journals.

The avian influenza virus A/H5N1, which was identified in Asia in 1997, rarely infects humans, but when it does it causes severe disease and a high rate of mortality. Now researchers claim to have generated avian-flu viruses in the lab that are transmissible between ferrets, and to have identified mechanisms that are involved. The manuscripts of two studies were submitted to the scientific journals Natureand Science.

Members of the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended that the basic result be published without methods or details. This week in Naturethey argued that the findings represent a “grave concern” for global biosecurity, biosafety and public health.

“If influenza A/H5N1 virus acquired the capacity for human-to-human spread and retained its current virulence, we could face an epidemic of significant proportions,” they write.

“Our concern is that publishing these experiments in detail would provide information to some person, organisation or government that would help them to develop similar . . . A/H5N1 viruses for harmful purposes.”

Last month, the researchers announced a voluntary 60-day pause on their work, which they describe as having found “critical information that advances our understanding of influenza transmission”. Writing in Nature, researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka reckons that the redaction of his group’s manuscript will make it harder for “legitimate scientists” to get the information.

“To find better solutions to dual-use concerns, the international community should convene to discuss how to minimise risk while supporting scientific discovery. Flu investigators (including me) have agreed to a 60-day moratorium on avian-flu transmission research because of the current controversy. But our work remains urgent – we cannot give up.”