Government urges caution as scientists release study on gene mutations in bird flu virus

The Takeaway

The United States government has taken an unprecedented step in what it says is the effort to keep dangerous information out of the hands of terrorists.

A panel of government scientists are urging the scientific journals Science and Nature withhold key details from forthcoming articles on experiments with bird flu, the New York Times reported.The researchers, at the University of Wisconsin and another university in the Netherlands, received federal funding to determine how and if bird flu could mutate into a disease easily communicable by humans.

The short answer is: it can. And now a panel of government appointed scientists, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, is worried that if the how-to information is broadly published, it could become a recipe for terrorists looking to launch a biological attack. The federal National Institutes of Health actually funded both research projects.

Bird flu is an especially deadly version of the influenza virus, with about half of the 600 humans who’ve contracted it having died. At the moment, however, it rarely travels from birds to humans. 

Ron Fouchier, the lead researcher for the team of Dutch scientists, said, in principle, the board’s recommendation makes perfect sense.

“The only problem we have with it is that people who legitimately need to know, legitimate researchers around the globe who need to know the details of our story, those are manyfold. We think as many as 100 organizations internationally need to get our detailed data,” Fouchier said. “By the time we have distributed the information to so many researchers around the world, the question arises is this still classified information. We think not. We think the information will be on the street eventually.

The research has already been presented at scientific conferences, and the board doesn’t object to some of the information being published, because they want leading scientists to be able to prepare for this sort of attack. But they’re worried about “experimental details and mutation data that would enable replication of the experiments.”

Fouchier said it’s his groups hope that other researchers around the globe could use the data to help fight against any pandemic that happens. That’s why they’re planning a fairly large distribution — so countries and organizations can plan treatments and countermeasures in the event of a pandemic, intentional or natural.

“I think the bioterrorists organization or rogue countries have much easier ways to have bioterrorist activism,” Fouchier said. “Mutating this virus, the H5N1 virus is not the simplest option. Nature is the biggest bioterrorist and there are many toxins out in the field that one can get and grow.”

Fouchier said this research has been years in the works and involved close collaboration with scientists and governments, and even new facility construction, so that the research could be done safely and in a way that would benefit humans in the event of a future pandemic.

It’s important to note that the board, which is mostly made up of scientists appointed by the secretary of health and human services, does not have the power to compel scientists and publishers to go along with their request.

So far, however, all indications are that the experimental details will be left out of the publications.

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