April 23rd, 2012
01:13 PM ET
Two studies on the deadly H5N1 avian flu virus have been steeped in controversy because some experts view them as a threat to biosecurity. Now, the U.S. government is saying they should be published.
The papers suggest ways that manipulation of the virus could heighten its virulence and ability to be transmitted.
"This line of research is critically important because it will help public health officials understand, detect, and defend against the emergence of H5N1 virus as a human threat, a development that could pose a pandemic scenario," according to a statement by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.
With just a few genetic tweaks to H5N1, Fouchier and colleagues were able to make the virus go airborne, infecting a population of ferrets with alarming speed, according to reports.
After reviewing the data, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which advises the NIH and other federal agencies, voted 12-6 in favor of releasing Fouchier's research, with the caveat that "scientific clarifications" are made; and voted unanimously that research authored by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a professor of virology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, be released in its entirety.
The U.S. government previously advised that the research not be published in the journals Science and Nature. A committee at the World Health Organization said in February that the the papers should be published, but did not specify when.
"These particular manuscripts include the important finding that the H5N1 virus has greater potential than previously believed to gain the capacity to be transmitted among mammals," Collins said. "The manuscripts describe some of the genetic changes that appear to correlate with this potential."
H5N1 is a virus that has inspired major concern, due to high global death rates associated with it. According to the latest data released by the World Health Organization, of the 602 cases reported to the agency, 355 people have died.
Although some scientists question the veracity of the almost 60% mortality rate associated with H5N1, many agree that the virus poses a potentially huge threat to humans if it spreads.
The decision by the NSABB suggests that the value of the data outweighs any terrorism threat it may pose.
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