U.S. asks journals to censor bird flu studies

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A U.S. scientific  advisory board yesterday asked two scientific  journals to leave out data from research studies 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 has  asked the journals Nature and Science to publish redacted  versions of the studies by two research groups that reportedly  created forms of the H5N1 avian flu that could easily jump  between ferrets — typically considered a sign that the virus  could spread quickly among humans.

Both journals said in separate statements they are working  with the advisory board and taking the matter seriously, but  they chafed at the notion of scientific censorship.

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.

According to the journals, two research labs have submitted  papers showing how to make the virus more transmissible in  humans, and the NSABB, an independent expert committee that  advises the Department of Health and Human Services and other  federal agencies, 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 said in a statement the  HHS agreed with the panel’s assessment and provided the journals  with non-binding recommendations to withhold key elements of the  studies, but said the government is working out a system to  allow secure access to the information to those with a  legitimate need to see it.

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

“It is essential for public health that the full details of  any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to  researchers,” according to a statement issued by Dr. Philip  Campbell, editor in chief of Nature.

“We are discussing with interested parties how, within the  scenario recommended by NSABB, appropriate access to the  scientific methods and data could be enabled.”

Dr. Bruce Alberts, editor in chief of Science magazine, said  in a statement the advisory board asked the journal to delete  details on the scientific methods and specific mutations of the  virus before publishing an article by Fouchier and colleagues.

“The NSABB has emphasized the need to prevent the details of  the research from falling into the wrong hands,” Alberts said in  a statement.

He said many scientists who study influenza have a need to  know the details of the research in order to protect the public.  He said the editors at Science are evaluating how best to  proceed.

“Our response will be heavily dependent upon the    further  steps taken by the U.S. government to set forth a written,  transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted  from the publication will be provided to all those responsible  scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts  to improve public health and safety.”

Other researchers said the mutations described in the papers  were not unusual or unexpected, and several voiced concerned  over government-imposed censorship on science.

“It is a very worrying idea that information from this type  of work may be restricted to those that ‘qualify’ in some way to  be allowed to share it,” Professor Wendy Barclay, chairwoman in  influenza virology at Imperial College London, said in an  e-mailed statement.

“Who will qualify? How will this be decided? In the end is  the likelihood of misuse outweighed by the danger of beginning a  Big Brother society?”

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