US asks journals to censor potentially dangerous bird flu studies

By Julie Steenhuysen, Reuters

CHICAGO–The U.S. government has asked the scientific journals Nature and Science to censor data on a lab-made version of bird flu that could spread more easily to humans, fearing it could be used as a potential weapon.

The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked the two journals to publish redacted versions of studies by two research groups that created forms of the H5N1 avian flu that could easily jump between ferrets – typically considered a sign the virus could spread quickly among humans.

The journals are objecting to the request, saying it would restrict access to information that might advance the cause of public health.

The request was a first for the expert panel, formed after a series of anthrax attacks on U.S. targets in 2001. It advises the Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies about “dual use” research that could serve public health but also be a potential bioterror threat.

“NSABB has never before recommended to restrict communications on research that NSABB has reviewed that has potential dual use implications,” Dr. Amy Patterson, director of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Biotechnology Activities, said in an e-mailed statement.

The bird flu virus is extremely deadly in people who are directly exposed to infected birds but so far it has not mutated into a form that can pass easily from person to person.

The National Institutes of Health funded the two research labs’ work to see how the virus could become more transmissible in humans, with the aim of getting early insight to contain threats to public health. The NSABB wants to keep this information from falling into the wrong hands.

The articles involved work done by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist, and Dr. Ron Fouchier and colleagues from the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) said the health department agreed with the panel’s assessment and gave the journals non-binding recommendations to withhold key elements of the studies.

But the NIH said the government is working out a system to allow secure access to the information to those with a legitimate need to see it.