US scientists who warned about the risks of disclosing two research papers on H5N1 influenza reversed course Friday, recommending that the studies should be published in uncensored form.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity had in December asked two journals, Science and Nature, to hold off publishing studies about the lab-engineered strains of the H5N1 influenza on the basis they could be used by terrorists.
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Normally, the the highly lethal virus only spreads from poultry to humans, not between humans, but the fears remained it could be engineered for human-to-human transmission and cause a deadly pandemic.
The committee's about-face came after the heads of the two research teams -- one Dutch, the other American -- provided new information on its possible importance at a two-day meeting of the committee in Washington, the Washington Post reported.
The committee said in a written statement that "the additional information changed the board's risk-benefit calculation."
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According to the Post, the 18 voting members were swayed by two factors:
One, the papers did not provide step-by-step directions for how to make the engineered H5N1 strain; and two, that the papers would give public health officials information that would help them identify wild H5N1 strains evolving in an especially dangerous direction.
The Wall Street Journal cited Arturo Casadevall, a member of the board and professor of microbiology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, as saying that a plan to disseminate the studies to key scientists while withholding it from the general public was deemed impossible due to current laws.
"We were left with two decisions: No publication or full publication," Casadevall reportedly said.