In the wake of a team of Dutch researchers creating a deadly new strain of H5N1 bird flu virus in their lab, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, overseen by the National Institutes of Health, has asked two journals, Science and Nature, not to publish “experimental details and mutation data that would enable replication of the experiments.”
The big scare is that terrorists could get a hold of the recipe and set off a global pandemic.
While H5N1 is very dangerous when contracted by humans, it has never set off a pandemic since it doesn’t transmit easily from birds to humans. But an easily-transmitted, deadly strain is always just one or two mutations away, as we explained here a few weeks ago.
Since the virus was first detected in 1997, only 600 people have contracted it, but more than half of those have died. Nearly all have caught it from birds, and most cases have been in Asia. Scientists continue to worry that if it were to develop the ability to spread easily from person to person, it could create one of the deadliest pandemics ever.
Scientists are always ticklish about being pressed by government agencies not to publish something, and the panel cannot force the journals to censor their articles, but the editor of Science, Bruce Alberts, said he would probably withhold some information on the condition that the government creates a system to provide the missing information to legitimate scientists.
More at the New York Times.