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

By Carlton Purvis

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 a 60 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 to make 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.


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