Details of lab-made bird flu won't be revealed (Update)

Dec 20, 2011 By LAURAN NEERGAARD , AP Medical Writer
In this Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008 file photo, health workers slaughter all the chickens at the wholesale poultry market in Hong Kong after three dead chickens tested positive for bird flu. The U.S. government asked scientists Tuesday Dec. 20, 2011 not to reveal all the details of how to make a version of the deadly bird flu that they created in labs in the U.S. and Europe. The lab-bred virus, being kept under high security, appears to spread more easily among mammals. That's fueled worry that publishing a blueprint could aid terrorists in creating a biological weapon, the National Institutes of Health said. Bird flu, known formally as H5N1 avian influenza, occasionally infects people who have close contact with infected poultry, particularly in parts of Asia. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

The U.S. government paid scientists to figure out how the deadly bird flu virus might mutate to become a bigger threat to people - and two labs succeeded in creating new strains that are easier to spread.

On Tuesday, federal officials took the unprecedented step of asking those scientists not to publicize all the details of how they did it.

The worry: That this research with lots of potential to help the public might also be hijacked by would-be bioterrorists. The labs found that it appears easier than scientists had thought for the so-called H5N1 bird flu to evolve in a way that lets it spread easily between at least some mammals.

"It wasn't an easy decision," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious diseases chief at the National Institutes of Health, which funded the original research.

The scary-sounding viruses are locked in high-security labs as researchers at the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin-Madison prepare to publish their findings in leading scientific journals. That's the way scientists share their work so that their colleagues can build on it, perhaps creating better ways to monitor bird flu in the wild, for example.

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.

In statements, the two research teams say they're making some changes, if reluctantly. The journals are mulling what to do, and the government didn't say precisely what should be left out.

But Science editor-in-chief Dr. Bruce Alberts said his journal pushed the U.S. government to set up a system where certain international researchers will be able to get the full genetic recipe for these lab-bred strains - especially those in bird flu-prone countries like China and Indonesia.

"This is a sort of watershed moment," said Alberts, noting it's believed to be the first time this kind of secrecy has been sought from legitimate public health research.

He doesn't want to publish an abbreviated version of the findings unless he can direct scientists how to get the full, if confidential, details.

"It's very important to get this information out to all the people around the world who are living with this virus and are working on it," Alberts said.

NIH's Fauci said the system should be working very soon, so that international public health officials, scientists and drug companies with "a legitimate need to know can have access to that information."

Nature's editor-in-chief, Dr. Philip Campbell, also called the recommendations unprecedented.

"It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers, he said in a statement. The journal is discussing how "appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled."

H5N1 has caused outbreaks in wild birds and poultry in a number of countries around the world. But it only occasionally infects people who have close contact with infected poultry, particularly in parts of Southeast Asia. It's known to have sickened nearly 600 people over the past decade. But it's highly deadly, killing about 60 percent of the time.

The concern is that one day, bird flu might begin spreading easily between people and cause a pandemic. The NIH wanted to know what genetic changes it should monitor for, as a warning.

In surprise findings, the two teams of researchers separately re-engineered bird flu to create strains that can spread easily between ferrets. That animal mimics how humans respond to influenza.

That doesn't necessarily mean the new lab-bred flu strains could infect people, Fauci cautioned.

Still, the viruses are being kept under special conditions along with other so-called "select agents" for security and to guard against a lab accident, as researchers try to learn more about just how risky the H5N1 that circulates in the wild really could become.

"There is clearly a public health threat that has been lingering and smoldering with regard to H5N1 for several years," said Fauci, who adds that a naturally occurring flu pandemic is much more likely than any man-made one.

"Nature is the worst bioterrorist. We know that through history," he said.

More information on the two research projects isn't being released until the journals decide what to publish.

But in a statement last month, Dutch lead researcher Dr. Ron Fouchier said his discovery showed what mutations to watch for so "we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late."

Tuesday, Erasmus Medical Center said researchers were complying with the U.S. request to change their scientific report. But, "academic and press freedom will be at stake as a result of the recommendation. This has never happened before," the statement said.

The University of Wisconsin said virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka's team likewise would comply.

"While recognizing the potential for misuse of scientific discovery, the research described by UW-Madison researchers is essential for public health, global influenza surveillance activities and the development of vaccines and drugs to counter any potential pandemic," said a university statement.

An independent biosecurity expert called Tuesday's announcement a good middle-ground but said scientists should think twice about re-engineering influenza given the potential global consequences of an accident. The two labs involved are highly regarded, but more and more labs around the world can try similar work, noted Dr. D.A. Henderson of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"Influenza is certainly a unique beast in its capability to spread," said Henderson, who played a key role in the eradication of a different killer, smallpox. "The question is how can we assure experiments like this really aren't done in ways that the organism is apt to escape."

Explore further: Rising temperatures hinder Indian wheat production

More information: NIH statement: http://tinyurl.com/NIHstatement

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User comments : 20

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Nanobanano
1 / 5 (2) Dec 20, 2011
Sounds like an episode of "Seven Days".

I figure it's probably something "too simple, too obvious".

Take the mexican H1N1 flu pandemic virus, infect a chicken, take the H5N1 virus, infect the same chicken.

Repeat enough times and maybe the same cell gets infected by both viruses simultaneously.

Repeat enough times, maybe an "accident" happens during the replication and some genes get crossed.

Viola! Pandemic 2.0.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.7 / 5 (6) Dec 20, 2011
I figure it's probably something "too simple, too obvious".
-This is only because you are too simple and too obvious little Pudel, and so you see these traits everywhere you look.
Repeat enough times and maybe the same cell gets infected by both viruses simultaneously.
Blah. Competent scientists in third world countries are figuring this all out as we speak. That is their job and that is what their god requires of them.
EndofTimes2012
1 / 5 (10) Dec 20, 2011
this is truly the end times. this will be the killer of us all and is also a prophecy come true. filthy scientist. its sad this is the end times
Vendicar_Decarian
2.7 / 5 (7) Dec 20, 2011
If only Richard Pearle was there to direct the production of such biological entities to target the races that he feels are the enemies of the NeoConservative New American Century.
Telekinetic
4.4 / 5 (7) Dec 20, 2011
this is truly the end times. this will be the killer of us all and is also a prophecy come true. filthy scientist. its sad this is the end times

Did I mention the time I heard a knock on my computer and opened it to find a Jehovah Witness?
EndofTimes2012
Dec 20, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Telekinetic
4.4 / 5 (7) Dec 20, 2011
Dear EndofTimes2012:
This forum is primarily made up of devil worshippers who will eventually drag you into an inescapable hell that will make the biblical Hell seem like Club Med. I suggest you find Pat Robertson's or Michelle Bachmann's website before they brand you with the mark of the beast. Tell my family I'm okay.
EndofTimes2012
1.6 / 5 (7) Dec 20, 2011
Sorry but this article is proof positive that we dont have much longer. This virus will get in the wrong hands or an accident will happen. Try to enjoy the last days
Alex_
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 21, 2011
all these religious bufoons. get out of a science blog. this is no place for irrational faith. revalations. the devil. what a joke!
but i do agree that chainge H1N1 and H5N1 is risky buisness.
i still firmly believe there is very strong evidence to say this has been done before in regards to aids and swine flu . there may be alternate agenda. but it has nothing at all to d with christianity or any other religion. grow up. whathppend to being rational
jsdarkdestruction
5 / 5 (1) Dec 21, 2011
I wonder if it would be worth turning into a biological weapon compared to the other deadly deadly viruses we currently have on stock. i guess this way they could release it somewhere and not have the obviousness of "oh hey, a whole city just got smallpox? i wonder how that happened?!?!"
Not to say im agreeing with any of the doom and gloom people, just an observation i made.
fmfbrestel
5 / 5 (1) Dec 21, 2011
@ EndofTimes2012: "Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces."

and also:

"So do not worry about tomorrow ; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."

and if nothing else:

"Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven"
Blakut
not rated yet Dec 21, 2011
Bird flu...i'd be worried for the birds. I mean, come on. It's flu... right? right?!?
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.7 / 5 (6) Dec 21, 2011
Bird flu...i'd be worried for the birds. I mean, come on. It's flu... right? right?!?
ha that's funny. Flu killed 200M in 1915. This flu kills 60pct of all who catch it. They sneeze themselves to death. They drown in their own post-nasal drip.

Endoftimes doesn't know that the emergence would happen naturally, sooner or later. Don't blame science for trying to protect us against this.
EndofTimes2012
1 / 5 (3) Dec 21, 2011
you are all shakin in your boots. i die this until next spring until it leaks. very sad indeed. i would rather put a bullet in my head and burn than to endure this virus that will be released. vile scientist like this shouldnt be trusted with this deadly plague. look at swine flue and aids
Mastoras
1 / 5 (2) Dec 21, 2011
all these religious bufoons. get out of a science blog. this is no place for irrational faith. revalations. the devil. what a joke!

Tragically, the fact that they are religious bufoons is not enough protection for anyone of us from being science bufoons.
For instance, religion makes for fine scholarship. Its called history of religion, religious art, religion and philosophy, theology as a system, textual criticism of ancient texts, biblical studies...
Faith also makes for very fine philosophical discourse. Is logic a faith? How do we know what we know?

The Fall of Byzantium was followed by the European Renaissance. In the West, a culture became dominant based on reason without any metaphysics --or, was it the West's perception of reason? In any case, this kind of society only concerns the last 4 or 5 centuries and only when it comes to the West. With the tools of this Western historical period, one can understand nothing for the rest of the world and the rest of history.
-.
powerup1
1 / 5 (1) Dec 21, 2011
Hidden knowledge is more dangerous than knowledge in full view. I am more worried about anyone controlling our access to information than I am afraid of some potential bio-terrorist making use of that information. Remember that knowledge is power and it is the power to control.
rawa1
1 / 5 (2) Dec 21, 2011
What the research is good for, if it's result cannot be published? Such result should be outlawed instead like any other similar unethical research and definitely not sponsored from public money. For example, by law we cannot do the nuclear research in our kitchens because of public threat and this research is the example of the same category.

I just explained in neighbouring thread, any activity which needs to remain hidden is actually unethical and harmful for the rest of civilization from wider perspective and it should be delayed to the moment, where its publicizing poses no threat for sufficiently advanced society. We don't need such a viruses for anything useful, despite the scientists involved are saying the opposite.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.7 / 5 (6) Dec 21, 2011
I just explained in neighbouring thread, any activity which needs to remain hidden is actually unethical and harmful for the rest of civilization from wider perspective
'ALL of war is deception.' Sun Tsu. Losing is not an option. These principles are why we even have a civilization, and why it has not collapsed under the onslaught of those who would use them against us.

Perfidious Albion. Britania rules the waves.
Cave_Man
1 / 5 (1) Dec 25, 2011
These principles are why we even have a civilization,...


No, this way of thinking is why peaceful entities are slaughtered for no reason. A dinosaur may be a monster but he doesn't terrorize with malignant intent, he eats because he's hungry not because he wants to kill everything brutally with his teeth. I think that what you're talking about is an invention of man, we achieve ever increasing modes of luxury and it divides us into the pacifist and the aggressor. One must obtain proper amounts of both along with a moral compass governed by what I call God, which is just a part of you that knows killing in cold blood is wrong but also would cause you to feel guilt if you were to kill in retribution or even self defense.

Reality is always more complicated than we understand, to me all this religious crap is just the reality driving some people mad.

Two robot machines fighting each other, both immortal. Same as two souls locked in conflict for all time, if you think about it.
Cave_Man
1 / 5 (1) Dec 25, 2011
Uhhh, to create an air of relevancy to the whole flu thing:

People have been grouping to millions of years, all animals do it to an extent with progeny etc. The more we group and the more total groups there are the higher chance of co-evolution, like picking up a hitchhiker. If the bloodsucking corporations weren't so evil (if an altruistic corp hits the scene they would become the perfect target for greedy corps who want nothing more than unchallenged domination) we would have a cure for H5N1.

I understand the value of learning about the way a virus mutates but the way to do it is to make computer simulations and develop a model virus which evolves the same way the real one does. But to learn about that by literally making the thing....someone need to cut the funding, yesterday.

They should be breeding a virus which has lower potency and less detrimental effect, then breed that strain to infect humans.

It may not be a complete solution but it's a little better than what they did.
kochevnik
1 / 5 (2) Dec 25, 2011
This is the tipping point where molecular biology gets rolled back after the first million die from an engineered bug. It will persist like nuclear weapons technology but the golden age will be behind us, as research results are classified going forward.