Are we at risk from terrorists using bird flu bioweapons?

Dec 22, 2011

US government accused of stifling scientific research for fear of it falling into wrong hands

TWO SCIENTIFIC journals have been asked by the US National Science Advisory Board to withhold from publishing information that could help terrorists morph a strain of bird flu into a human pandemic. The request is unprecedented in biological sciences.

The US government fears the information, set to be published in Nature and Science, could be used to make dangerous bioweapons. "Anything like this has the potential to trigger ideas in some maverick," says Peter Openshaw, director of the centre for respiratory infection at Imperial College, London. "There are many crazy people out there, and there are also people who are fixed on some idea at the extreme end of the political norm. Both groups have the potential to cause harm."

But other scientists say censoring research is not the answer. Anyone with a reasonable knowledge of influenza virology could probably guess at how the exact mutation can be made, says Wendy Barclay, a colleague of Openshaw’s at Imperial College, in The Independent.

Barclay, professor of influenza virology, says she is "wary" of information being withheld from scientific literature. "If we don’t know what the mutations are that make the virus more transmissible, we won’t know what to look out for when we monitor the spread of new flu viruses," she says.

"This horse is out of the barn," agrees Professor Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, in The Daily Telegraph.

The dangers outweigh the benefits and proper risk assessments should have been made before the research was carried out, he says. "At this point, it is utterly futile to be discussing restricting the publication of this information."

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