Scientists balk as U.S. gov't pushes limits to bird flu discourse

Scientists are crying foul about U.S. government efforts to seek publication restrictions on research involved in building variations of the H5N1 bird flu virus. Others are OK with the move, interestingly enough.

Government officials are afraid the viruses could be wielded in a possible terrorist attack. But at least one research team involved in engineering a bird flu strain wants the decision-making process to go global and not just lay with the U.S., the Los Angeles Times and RedOrbit.com report.

"We do question whether it is appropriate to have one country dominate a discussion that has an impact on scientists and public-health officials worldwide," scientists Ron Fouchier and Ab Osterhaus of Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, Netherlands wrote in the journal Nature, as quoted by RedOrbit.

One vaccine made by Sanofi Pasteur is FDA-approved to prevent the H5N1 virus. The government stockpiles it, but it is not sold commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are trying to develop vaccines to treat various H5N1 strains, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That means scientific research remains important in the fight against the virus. And this is where this fierce debate begins. Fouchier and Osterhaus plus a team led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin at Madison each engineered their bird flu strains in the lab and wanted to publish the results. But as the Times reports, the U.S. government's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked the journals Science and Nature in November to delay publishing the findings until they could set up a system that lets scientists access the work but prevents the same information from reaching terrorists. There is some risk the tweaked viruses could cause an outbreak if they got out.

Both publications complied, the Times notes. But Nature chose to publish opinion articles recently that address the debate and written by experts who chime in on all sides.

Some scientists supported the publication limitation, but others, including Fouchier, saw the U.S. as taking too much power. One writer suggested the World Health Organization should get involved, the Times said.

- here's the Los Angeles Times story
- read the RedOrbit piece

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