Deadly flu strains must continue to be studied, researchers say

Research into deadly flu strains must continue in a bid to find vaccines and treatments, US experts have warned.

Scientist injecting a solution of avian influenza viruses into a chicken egg (Photograph: SPL)
Scientist injecting a solution of avian influenza viruses into a chicken egg (Photograph: SPL)

A US panel has voted to restrict access to scientific papers describing the production of a human-transmissible form of the H5N1 avian flu virus.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity said that only the general conclusions of such research should be published. Any more detailed publication could lead to people replicating experiments, creating mutations of the virus, the panel said.

But researchers writing in Nature warn this will hamper research into therapies that could be used in a flu pandemic.

Dr David Heymann, the World Health Organization’s assistant director-general for health security and environment, said that stopping this type of research ‘would open a dangerous door’.

‘Such research helps to develop public health tools such as vaccines and diagnostic tests,’ he said.

Other experts have questioned the NSABB’s authority to impose restrictions.

Dr Ron Fouchier and Dr Albert Osterhaus, of the virology department at the University of Rotterdam, said the matter affects scientists and public-health officials worldwide.

‘An issue this big should not be decided by one country but by all of us,’ they wrote.

Professor Kwok-Yung Yuen, of the University of Hong Kong, said the possibility of a global disaster was too risky to block publication of research findings.

'Censoring scientific data for publication would buy some time to find the appropriate antivirals and vaccines to protect against most variants of H5N1,’ he said.

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