Baku, May 7 (AZERTAC). The journal Nature has published the first of two controversial papers about laboratory-enhanced versions of the deadly bird flu virus that initially sparked fears among U.S. biosecurity experts that it could be used as a recipe for a bioterrorism weapon.
The publication of the paper by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on Wednesday follows months of acrimonious debate that pitted the need for science to be free of censorship against the obligation to protect the public from a potentially devastating flu pandemic.
Bird flu is lethal in people and spreads among those who are in close contact with infected birds, but so far, the virus known as H5N1 has not had the ability to pass easily among humans through sneezing and coughing, and some scientists had begun to doubt that that was possible.
The studies by Kawaoka and Dr. Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical College in the Netherlands changed that view by proving that with a few genetic mutations, the virus could pass easily among ferrets, which are used as a close approximation of how a virus might behave in people.
“There are people who say that bird flu has been around for 16, 17 years and never attained human transmissibility and never will,” said Malik Peiris, virology professor at the University of Hong Kong.
“What this paper shows is that it certainly can. That is an important public health message, we have to take H5N1 seriously. It doesn’t mean it will become a pandemic, but it can,” said Peiris, who wrote a commentary accompanying Kawaoka’s paper in Nature.
The impending publication of the two papers last December prompted the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to recommend that sensitive information be redacted, a first for the group which was formed after a series of anthrax attacks in the United States in 2001.
The group advises the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies about “dual use” research that could serve public health but also be a potential bioterrorism threat.
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