US lifts ban on Dutch deadly bird flu publications

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US experts have dropped their opposition to plans by the Rotterdam Erasmus Medical Centre to publish a controversial paper on a particularly deadly H5N1 bird flu strain, the scientific journal Science reports.

The Dutch research team, led by Ron Fouchier, caused controversy last year because it had developed a bird flu strain that could be transmitted by air. Though the lab research involved ferrets, the new strain could conceivably also infect people. Mr Fouchier described the virus as “probably one of the most dangerous viruses one can make.” Soon after Japanese-American researchers reached the same conclusion.

But planned publications in two leading scientific journals, Science and Nature, were blocked by the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). The body said it feared terrorists could use the information to develop a biological weapon of mass destruction. The NSABB called for the publication to omit critical information to prevent it from falling in terrorist hands. The World Health Organisation, on the other hand, insisted on full disclosure of the research results, saying they are essential to help preventing a bird flu pandemic.

Free exchange
After a meeting on Thursday and Friday, the NSABB said “new evidence that gives a better understanding of the virus can help safeguard public health and security.” Global cooperation requires free exchange of information and constitutes a fundamental principle in evaluating publications, the NSABB said in a statement. But it also stressed that the risk of “dual use”, by researchers and terrorists, remained.

The US experts refused to reveal what changes had been made in the publications. It’s thought a statement by Mr Fouchier, saying the virus was not as easily transmitted from person to person as previously thought, may have to do with the about-face.

The H5N1 bird flu virus is regarded as one of the deadliest bird flu viruses. More than half the people who contract it die because of it. Until now, the virus is only known to have spread to humans from poultry

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