First of 2 papers on lab-made bird flu published

Associated Press Modified: May 2, 2012 at 1:00 pm •  Published: May 2, 2012
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NEW YORK (AP) — Four months ago the U.S. government sought to block publication of two studies about how scientists created an easily spread form of bird flu. Now a revised version of one paper is seeing the light of day with the government's blessing.

The revision appears online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

It's the near-conclusion to a drama that pit efforts to learn how to thwart a global flu epidemic against concerns about helping terrorists create bioweapons. The second paper, which is more controversial because it involves what appears to be a more dangerous virus, is expected to be published later in the journal Science.

For some experts, the affair underscores a more basic question about whether creating potentially risky versions of bird flu is a good idea.

"Clearly, research like this can be beneficial" for dealing with the bird-flu threat, said Dr. Eric Toner of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's biosecurity center.

But there's the question of calculating risk versus benefit, he said. "If we're taking a highly lethal virus and making it more transmissible, it's a tough judgment... These sorts of decisions should be made in advance of the research being done, not when the papers are ready for publication."

The bird flu that has spread among poultry in Asia for several years now can be deadly, but it rarely sickens people. And people generally catch it from chickens and ducks, not from other people. Scientists have worried that as virus strains mix in nature, they could produce a deadly bird flu that transmits easily from one person to another. That could set the stage for a flu pandemic.

The new studies come from two teams of scientists, one in a U.S. lab and another in the Netherlands. They created virus strains that spread easily among ferrets, which were used as a stand-in for people. The researchers wanted to study what genetic mutations helped the virus spread. That way scientists could identify such red flags in wild viruses and act quickly to avoid potential pandemic, as well as test vaccine and drugs.

The journals Nature and Science each planned to publish one of the studies.

But the federal government, which funded the research, asked the scientists not to publish details of their work. Officials were worried that the full papers would give bioterrorists a blueprint for creating weapons. That led to a wide-ranging debate among scientists, many of whom argued that sharing details of such work is essential in fighting the threat of dangerous viruses.

Both teams eventually submitted revised versions of their research to a U.S. biosecurity panel. That group and, later, federal health officials agreed to support publication. For one thing, the panel said, it would be difficult for others to do harm using the data provided, and for another, scientists had good reasons for publishing the results.

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