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Revisiting the U.S. decision to publish contentious bird flu research

In 2011, two independent research groups tried to publish the identity of five genes would allow a deadly strain of the avian flu to transmit between animals, something the disease cannot do in the wild. At that time, the U.S. government wanted to censor the experimental details for reasons of biosecurity. Eventually, the U.S. allowed the full publication of these studies, which appeared in the journal Science. Now, with the emergence of a new bird flu strain with three of those five predicted gene mutations, that decision seems more appropriate and timely than ever.

Because the results in the two studies by Kawaoka and Fouchier detailed the evolution of a bird flu strain that could easily transmit between mammals, thereby producing an increasingly threatening virus, their results were deemed "dual use research"—work that possesses both a great benefit to humans worldwide and a great potential harm if misused. Although the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity originally recommended redaction, it eventually concluded that "understanding specific mutations and the biologic properties associated with these mutations may improve international surveillance and public health efforts."

The new strain of avian influenza A (H7N9) has killed 46 patients since February, 33 percent of the 136 laboratory-confirmed cases. This strain of the virus is less deadly than its H5N1 sibling, which has left a staggering 59 percent mortality in its wake since 2003. But unlike H5N1, the H7N9 strain does not cause any visible symptoms in infected birds, so limiting its exposure to humans remains difficult. Thus far, human-to-human transmission has not been detected, however, this strain is worryingly close to being able to do so. The H7N9 virus already has the mutation that allows it to bind to mammalian cells, whereas H5N1 does not. Therefore, knowing the genetic requirements for such an event are vital for staving off a pandemic.

Publication of this research is crucial to efforts by the research community to provide the knowledge base necessary for generating an effective vaccine. Because H7 viruses elicit a weaker immune response, more virus will likely be needed to prepare vaccines that ensure proper protection. The NIH has recently begun testing a vaccine with adjuvants in hopes of minimizing the amount of virus necessary to stimulate an adequate response.

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