Friday, June 22, 2012

Bird Flu Papers Finally Published

After months of delay, two controversial papers about the bird flu virus have finally been published. The papers appear in May 2 issue of Nature and in the June 22 issue of Science.

Publication of both papers was held up because of the potentially dangerous nature of the information they contained; both papers documented methods that increased the airborne transmissibility of the bird flu virus in species other than birds. Although the current virus is highly contagious and deadly in birds and deadly to humans in the rare cases when humans have become infected, so far the virus has not shown the ability to be transmitted easily from birds to humans. And there is no documented case (yet) of transmission between humans; all infected humans have gotten the virus from birds.

Both papers contain basic information about genetic modifications of the virus that lead to increased transmissibility of the virus between mammals (ferrets). Government officials were worried that the information might be used by bioterrorists to create a strain of the virus that would be highly contagious between humans. When news of the papers’ potential publication first appeared back in December, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked that publication be delayed so that the issue could be studied. However, after much discussion it has been decided that publication should be allowed after all.

Interestingly, both papers reported that modification of the virus to make it more transmissible also reduced its virulence. In fact, none of the ferrets infected with the modified viruses died. Whether the modified virus would also be less virulent in humans isn’t known. But if so, that would certainly reduce the value of the current papers to potential terrorists.

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