Researchers in the Netherlands have created a mutated, highly contagious form of the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain that some fear could kill millions if it were unleashed on the general public. The U.S. government wants to keep the methodology behind the strain's creation under wraps for now, fearing its release could heighten the strain's potential for use as a weapon of biological warfare.
Virologist Ron Fouchier, who carried out his research at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, said in a statement that he hoped his research would assist in developing better vaccines and treatments for influenza in the future. Fouchier did 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 on the medical center's website. "Furthermore, the finding will help in the timely development of vaccinations and medication."
The study results were to be published in the U.S. journal Science, but 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, reviewed it Tuesday and warned that bioterrorists could potentially misuse the published research "for harmful purposes."
"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.
Fouchier declined to comment beyond his statements, and the Erasmus Medical Center press office referred reporters to the NSABB's statement until further decisions had been made regarding publication of the research.
The National Institutes of Health, which funded the research, said Fouchier and his team would make changes to the manuscript before it was 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."
Experts contacted by ABCNews.com were split on whether the research should be published. While most virologists believe in noncensorship for the good of public health, some talked about the potential danger of releasing information on a virus that was so easily mutated.
"The idea that biosecurity consists in policing scientists or chimerical "bioterrorists" is dangerous nonsense," said Philip Alcabes, a professor in the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College. "Who knows what the motives of the self-professed biosecurity experts really are, but in practice, their ridiculous pronouncements promote vast expenditures of taxpayer monies that achieve little outside of propping up the very biosecurity industry from which the warnings come."
"Censorship offends me, particularly in science," said John Barry, author of "The Great Influenza." "Nonetheless, I think there should be review of something like this ... but not necessarily by the government. It should be done by people who respect scientific openness, and publishing should be the default position."
Others, including Nicole Baumgarth, a professor in the department of pathology, microbiology and immunology at the University of California at Davis, said NIH scientists were in an "excellent position" to review the science and make recommendations, and discussion of whether to publish such data was necessary.
"I do think [the research] might help us to identify which mutations in influenza might cause outbreaks," said Baumgarth. "This could be of importance as the NIH and other organizations supporting the screening and sequencing of influenza viruses from birds and other species, as a means to screen what might become the next pandemic."
At least one other laboratory in Japan has reportedly conducted similar research and found similar results. Because of this, Baumgarth said, "it is really important to report on the research progress made, but maybe withhold the details of the exact mutations. At least that would prevent copycat science.
"But let's face it," she said. "If two research labs have done this already, nobody is going to stop a third and fourth lab from doing the same. These are routine procedures done in many labs around the world."
Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt School of Medicine, said Fouchier's research is "illuminating" in helping to understand what aspects of the virus's genome can be changed to make it easily transmissible. Instead of worrying about biological warfare, Schaffner said the greater danger was the potential for the virus to escape from the university research laboratory, where it is reportedly being held under lock and key.
"A biowarfare threat of influenza is very low because the virus cannot be controlled once it is let out into the community," said Schaffner. "There are other biological warfare weapons that are much better at targeting specific populations. More importantly, people in that lab need to have a careful discussion on how to keep that virus in the lab secure. Viral escape is quite real. They should take extra care in handling it."