Government Silences Researchers’ Work On Bird Flu Strains
The U.S. government paid scientists to find out how the bird flu virus might mutate to become a bigger threat to people, but federal officials decided this information should be kept from the public.
Federal officials asked the scientists on Tuesday to keep their findings away from being publicized in fear of the wrong people finding out the formula.
The two labs in the study found that it appears easier than scientists believed for the H5N1 bird flu to evolve in a way that allows it to spread between mammals.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious diseases chief at the National Institutes of Health, which funded the original research, said in a statement.
Researchers at the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin-Madison were planning on publishing their findings in leading scientific journals.
However, biosecurity advisers to the government recommended that the journals Science and Nature only publish the general discoveries, not the full blueprint on how to concoct the H5N1 virus.
Science editor-in-chief Dr. Bruce Alberts said his journal pushed the U.S. government to set up a system where certain international researchers could have full access to the genetic makeup of H5N1.
“It’s very important to get this information out to all the people around the world who are living with this virus and are working on it,” Alberts said in a statement.
Dr. Philip Campbell, Nature’s editor-in-chief, said that the recommendations were unprecedented.
“It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers,” he said in a statement. The journal is discussing how “appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled.”
The bird flu has only sickened nearly 600 people over the past decade, but it’s a deadly virus that kills people 60 percent of the time.
Some are concerned that the bird flu might begin spreading easily between people and cause a pandemic.
The two teams of researchers separated re-engineered bird flu to create strains that can spread easily between ferrets. That animal mimics how humans respond to influenza.
The viruses were kept under special conditions along with other “select agents” for security and to guard against a lab accident.
“There is clearly a public health threat that has been lingering and smoldering with regard to H5N1 for several years,” Fauci said in a statement. “Nature is the worst bioterrorist. We know that through history,” he said.
Dutch lead researcher Dr. Ron Fouchier said in a statement in November that his discovery showed what mutations to watch for so “we can then stop the outbreak before it’s too late.”
Erasmus Medical Center researchers said on Tuesday that they were complying with the U.S. request to change their scientific report.
The University of Wisconsin team also said it would comply with the government request.
“While recognizing the potential for misuse of scientific discovery, the research described by UW-Madison researchers is essential for public health, global influenza surveillance activities and the development of vaccines and drugs to counter any potential pandemic,” said a university statement.
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