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A government advisory committee has reconsidered its advice to keep certain details of bird flu experiments secret.
Revised versions of manuscripts that describe two recent studies can be openly published, the committee now says. The decision could help end a contentious debate that has raged within the scientific community for months.
In response, the editors of two journals immediately said they planned to publish the research soon.
The editor-in-chief of the journal Nature, Philip Campbell, said in an emailed statement that his journal was delighted at the news. "Subject to any outstanding regulatory or legal issues, we intend to proceed with publication as soon as possible," Campbell said.
The editor-in-chief of the journal Science, Bruce Alberts, said in a statement that his journal "will proceed in an expedient but careful manner" to publish the research in full.
Late last year, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity reviewed two papers describing experiments on bird flu and recommended that science journals not publish the full details. The concern was that the information could reveal how to create a contagious new form of the bird flu virus that could potentially be used as a bioweapon.
U.S. government officials accepted that assessment and began working to set up a secure system for sharing the sensitive information only with scientists who had a legitimate need to know. But officials quickly realized that thorny legal issues were going to make it very difficult to develop such a system for researchers all around the world.
Then, in February, a group convened by the World Health Organization called for full publication of the bird flu studies, saying that widely sharing the information was important for public health efforts to prepare for flu pandemics that might emerge in the future.
Government officials consequently asked the NSABB to take another look at revised versions of the manuscripts, plus additional information. In a two-day meeting that ended today, the panel of scientists and security experts heard from the researchers who did the work and also got a classified briefing from the intelligence community.
The NSABB now says "the data described in the revised manuscripts do not appear to provide information that would immediately enable misuse of the research in ways that would endanger public health or national security."
In addition, the committee cited new evidence that "underscores the fact that understanding specific mutations may improve international surveillance" to detect an emerging flu pandemic.
The vote was unanimous for one of the revised papers, from a group led by flu researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
But not everyone on the committee agreed about what to do with a study from the lab of Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. For that revised paper, the vote was 12 to 6 in favor of openly publishing the data, methods and conclusions.
The committee has no power to enforce its advice, but its views do carry weight. The flu researchers and science journals have voluntarily held off on publication since the NSABB gave its initial recommendations.
Meanwhile, the government is taking steps to try to prevent a controversy like this from arising in the future.
Yesterday officials released a new policy for overseeing biological research that could potentially be used to threaten the public. It calls for screening proposed and ongoing government-funded research projects that involve 15 particularly nasty pathogens and toxins, such as Ebola, anthrax and highly pathogenic bird flu.
If it appears that experiments could yield potentially dangerous information, officials will have to develop a plan to mitigate the risk that the work could be misused. In some cases, the work could be classified.