That recommendation by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity reverses one the committee made in January, when it asked two journals, Science and Nature, to hold off publishing studies about the lab-engineered strains of the H5N1 influenza virus.
By David Brown, Published: March 30
The about-face came after the heads of the research teams — one Dutch, the other American — clarified their work and provided new information on its possible importance at a two-day meeting of the committee in Washington.
While the studies could still be used by terrorists or mischief-makers, the committee said in a written statement that “the additional information changed the board’s risk/benefit calculation.”
Two facts appeared to sway the 18 voting members, according to people on and off the committee not authorized to speak on the record.
One is that the papers don’t provide step-by-step directions for how to make the engineered H5N1 strain. Specifically, they don’t provide a final list of mutations that made the bird flu easily transmissible in mammals, which it isn’t naturally.
“The data described in the revised manuscripts do not appear to provide information that would immediately enable misuse of the research,” the committee wrote.
The second fact is that new surveillance shows that “wild” H5N1 viruses circulating in chicken flocks overseas contain mutations similar to ones in the lab-engineered strains. Consequently, publishing the papers would give public health officials information that would help them identify wild H5N1 strains evolving in an especially dangerous direction.
“Global cooperation . . . is predicated upon the free sharing of information and was a fundamental principle in evaluating these manuscripts,” the statement said.
Filed Under: HEALTH/EUGENICS
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