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Govt. Keeps Bird Flu Mutation under Wraps
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21 Dec 2011 01:14 PM EST

-by Jennifer Monteagudo, Staff Writer; Image: Dutch mutant bird flu (Image Source: The Telegraph)

It is often the case that information on troop movements, the location of our president and research in national defense are kept hidden from the public. Terrorist can lurk anywhere—both physically and online—and since 9/11, government officials must remember: “loose lips sink ships.”

But medical research?

 The Associated Press, via Yahoo!, is reporting that “mum’s the word” on federally funded bird flu research.

Two labs in researching the potential, and deadly, mutations of the bird flu succeeded in creating new, easily spread strains of the virus. While this is a step forward in understanding the avian influenza and potentially eradicating the flu that had a global outbreak in 2008, the government wants some of the labs’ research kept under wraps.

In this modern environment, bioterrorism is a real worry, and if the labs divulge all the details, a scientifically savvy terrorist cell could replicate the highly contagious mutated H5N1 strain.

From Yahoo!: “But biosecurity advisers to the government recommended that the journals Science and Nature publish only the general discoveries, not the full blueprint for these man-made strains. Tuesday, the government announced that it agreed and made the request.”

At the moment, the strains are on lockdown in high security labs at the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

According to the New York Times, this is a precedent-setting situation, marking the first time a government board—in this case, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity—has asked a scientific journal to self-censor specific information.

Although the NSABB does not have the ultimate authority to block information published in any scientific journal, “the editor of Science, Bruce Alberts, said the journal was taking the recommendations seriously and would probably withhold some information—but only if the government creates a system to provide the missing information to legitimate scientists worldwide who need it,” according to the New York Times.

The Times reports that since 1997, the bird flu has affected around 600 people. Over half of those 600 died as a result of contracting the H5N1 strain. Most fatalities have been in Asia, and most contracted the virus from birds, hence the name.


According to Gawker, there is a split opinion in the scientific community about the threat of the new mutation falling into terrorist hands: “NSABB chairman Paul Keim told Daily Mail that he ‘can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one.’ And Thomas Ingelsby of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh told New Scientist that ‘[t]he benefits of publishing this work do not outweigh the dangers of showing others how to replicate it.’”

One thing that is agreed upon is that this is new territory for both the government and the research community. From The New York Times: “It’s a precedent-setting moment, and we need to be careful about the precedent we set,” Dr. Alberts said.

Follow Jennifer Monteagudo on Twitter @yeyeberlynn

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