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U.S. Government Asks Science Journals to Redact Flu Research

01/03/2012 -    

National Institute of Health officials are asking two science journals to remove or redact information gathered from flu experiments out of biosecurity concerns. Researchers said they'll comply -- with reservations.

In the experiments, conducted at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and University of Wisconsin, Madison, scientists were able to create an aerosolized, mutated form of the H5N1 (bird flu) virus that could be easily spread between ferrets. Researchers say this indicates that this form of the virus could be just as easily spread between humans.

In humans, H5N1 has a60 percent mortality rate and can be transmitted from people by direct contact with saliva, nasal fluid, and feces of infected birds. It has not yet mutated to be able to pass person to person, except in extremely rare cases. In birds, the mortality rate is 90-100 percent, according to the CDC.

Because the flu virus mutates so rapidly, the scientists set out to discover how quickly H5N1 could mutate into a form that could be spread by a cough or a sneeze and what conditions it would take to make that happen. Manuscripts outlining the research conclusions and methodology were submitted for publication. Researchers presented their information during at least one conference in 2011.

On December 20, National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) published a statement asking the authors and editors tomake changes to the manuscripts and limit the articles to the general conclusions of the research and eliminate the “methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”

The statement comes after two manuscripts headed to Science and Nature were reviewed by the Department of Health and Human Services and “other departments and agencies” that advise on matters of biosecurity. The New York Times reported that this is the first time a government agency has asked scientific journals not to publish details of certain medical experiments.

NSABB says it recognizes the potential benefit of the information and is working to create a secure information sharing system to allow access to global influenza data on a need-to-know basis.

Bruce Alberts, the editor for Science told the Times that the journal is taking the recommendations seriously and will withhold some information only if the government creates a system to provide the information to scientists who need it.

Later, the Times published a Q & A session withRon A. M. Fouchier, lead researcher at the Erasmus Center who said he had serious doubts about the U.S. government’s ability to limit the transmission of the information to a controlled list of people.

“We have made a list of experts that we could share this with, and that list adds up to well over 100 organizations around the globe, and probably 1,000 experts. As soon as you share information with more than 10 people, the information will be on the street,” he said.

And in fact, it already is, and has been since at least September when Scientific American writer Katherine Harmon wrote about a presentation of the research whilecovering the fourth European Scientific Working Group on Influenza conference in September.

In the lab, scientists found that H5N1 could become as virulent as the seasonal flu in less than five mutations. “…They put the mutated virus in the nose of one ferret; after that ferret got sick, they put infected material from the first ferret into the nose of a second. After repeating this 10 times, H5N1 became as easily transmissible as the seasonal flu,” she wrote.

An official statement from Erasmus Medical Center says researchers have reservations about the NSABB recommendation but plan to observe it.

“The NSABB has determined that therisks of publishing the research data outweigh the benefits and therefore call for certain data to be kept secret…Furthermore, academic and press freedom will be at stake as a result of the recommendation. This has never happened before,” the statement said.