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Bird Flu Evolution Study Prompts Bioterrorism Concerns

Evolution Study Led to New, more Contageous Bird Flu. U.S. Goverment urges secrecy in light of bioterror danger.

We're lucky the dangerous bird flu virus H5N1 doesn't spread easily from person to person – yet.  That could change thanks to the rapid pace of viral evolution. In trying to understand the course of potential evolution of H5N1, scientists in Ohio and the Netherlands modified the virus until they came across a version that does spread easily, according to news reports released yesterday. That's important for scientists to know, but their work prompted an unprecedented move by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to request the recipe for making this virus be kept secret. The Washington Post and New York Times ran front page stories on this issue. Here's how the Post story described the situation:

After weeks of reviewing papers describing the research, the NSABB said Tuesday it had recommended that the experiments' "general conclusions" be published but not "details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm."

"Censorship is considered the ultimate sin of original research. However, we also have an imperative to keep certain research out of the hands of individuals who could use it for nefarious purposes," said Michael T. Osterholm, a member of the board who is also director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "It is not unexpected that these two things would clash in this very special situation."