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U.S. Journal Science Publishes Controversial H5N1 Research

The U.S. journal Science on Thursday published the results of a controversial study in which researchers at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands “identified five mutations apparently necessary to make the [H5N1] bird flu virus spread easily among ferrets, which catch the same flus that humans do,” the New York Times reports (McNeil, 6/21). “The publication of [the] research had been delayed by several months after the U.S. government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) warned that the information should be censored to avoid being misused, for example by terrorists,” the Guardian writes, noting, “Last month, Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published details of another form of the bird flu virus that can pass between people, which was created by merging a mutated strain with the swine flu virus that sparked a human pandemic in 2009” (Jha, 6/21).

“A second Science study, also published online [on Thursday], assesses the likelihood that these mutations will occur in nature and spur a pandemic in humans,” Scientific American notes (Harmon, 6/21). “Until now, scientists were not sure whether it was possible these same mutations could evolve in nature,” Reuters writes (Kelland, 6/21). “The likelihood of those changes occurring naturally is difficult to estimate but there is ‘no fundamental hurdle to that happening,’ said Derek Smith, a University of Cambridge researcher who led [the] second study,” according to Bloomberg (Bennett, 6/21). “The two papers offer important insights into what forms a spreadable bird flu may take, and could lead to more advances in how to stop it, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases,” Agence France-Presse adds (Sheridan, 6/21). The studies are “published alongside eight essays explaining some of the risks and benefits of this sort of research,” Scientific American notes (6/21).