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Nature Publishes First Of Two Controversial Studies On H5N1 Avian Flu

“In a long-awaited study that helped prompt a contentious debate over the wisdom of conducting research that has the potential to help as well as harm, scientists reported Wednesday that they had engineered a mutant strain of [H5N1] bird flu that can spread easily between ferrets — a laboratory animal that responds to flu viruses much as people do,” the Los Angeles Times (Brown, 5/3). Published in the journal Nature, the study is “the first of two controversial papers about laboratory-enhanced versions of the deadly bird flu virus that initially sparked fears among U.S. biosecurity experts that it could be used as a recipe for a bioterrorism weapon,” Reuters writes (Steenhuysen, 5/2). The U.S. National Security Advisory Board on Biosecurity “had asked journals to hold off publishing” the studies, but “[t]he panel later dropped its objections after it became clear the engineered viruses were less virulent than had been feared,” according to the Washington Post (Brown, 5/2).

The study, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo, describes how stitching a “mutated version of a key viral protein called hemagglutinin” from H5N1 onto the human H1N1 virus allowed the new virus to become more transmissible between mammals, ScienceNOW reports. “If the same holds true in humans, that means the virus might be able to trigger a pandemic,” the news service writes (Enserink/Cohen, 5/2). “In an editorial, Nature notes that the journal sought an independent safety assessment before releasing the study, and considered the arguments made in recent months,” according to USA Today’s “Science Fair” blog, which adds the editorial states, “In subsequent discussions with biosecurity researchers, there has been striking unanimity: where there is a benefit to public health or science, publish!” (Vergano, 5/2). “The second paper, which will be published in the journal Science, discusses the methodology behind a deadly H5N1 strain created in a Dutch laboratory at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam by scientist Ron Fouchier,” ABC News notes (Conley, 5/2).