Details of lab-made bird flu won’t be revealed

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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.”

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