The virologist who created a potentially dangerous, mutant strain of the deadly bird flu virus has agreed to omit methodology details from his published reports on the new strain. The decision came after the U.S. government warned Tuesday that published details of the experiment could be used to create a biological warfare weapon.
Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, said he created the contagious form of the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain "easily" by mutating a few genes within the strain. Officials feared the virus could kill millions if it were unleashed.
The study results were to be published in the U.S. journal Science, but in an unprecedented move, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, an independent committee that advises the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies, recommended against full publication after it determined the risks outweighed the benefit.
"Due to the importance of the findings to the public health and research communities, the NSABB recommended that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm," the committee said in a statement Tuesday.
"The researchers have reservations about this recommendation but will observe it," the Erasmus Medical Center said Wednesday in a statement.
Fouchier said that he hoped his research would assist in developing better vaccines and treatments for influenza in the future. He conducted his research on ferrets, whose immune response to influenza is similar to that of humans.
"We know which mutation to watch for in the case of an outbreak, and we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late," Fouchier said in a statement Tuesday on the medical center's website. "Furthermore, the finding will help in the timely development of vaccinations and medication."
The Erasmus Medical Center press office and the National Institutes of Health, which funded the research, said in statements that the researchers are currently working on a new report that complies with the feds' recommendations before it is published in scientific journals.
Since it appeared in 1996, H5N1 has killed hundreds of millions of birds, but transmission to humans has been rare. There have been about 600 confirmed cases of infections in people, most who worked directly with poultry. While rare, it is a deadly human disease. About 60 percent of those who had confirmed cases of the virus died.
Up until now, experts believed that the strain was transmissible from person-to-person only through very close contact, but Fouchier mutated the strain, creating an airborne virus that could be easily transmitted through coughs and sneezes.
In a written statement, Science's editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts said that the journal was taking the NSABB's request for an abbreviated version of Fouchier's research "very seriously."
While Alberts said that the journal strongly supported the work of the NSABB, Alberts and the journal's editors have "concerns about withholding potentially important public-health information from responsible influenza researchers. Many scientists within the influenza community have a bona fide need to know the details of this research in order to protect the public, especially if they currently are working with related strains of the virus."