Controversial H5N1 Bird Flu Study Published

One of two controversial studies on H5N1 avian influenza transmissibility has finally been published, appearing yesterday in the online journal Nature.

The research, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, appeared with some modifications to the original paper as requested by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB).  Kawaoka said last month that the changes to his paper “were mainly a more in-depth explanation of the significance of the findings to public health and a description of the laboratory biosafety and biosecurity.”

NSABB originally decided that the Kawaoka study, as well another bird flu study led by Dr. Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, were not to be published with their essential methods and data to prevent revealing the exact mutations that made the viruses transmissible. Months of public debate and several high-level meetings and rounds of expert testimony led to a late March decision by NSABB to reversing its position on publication. Nearly simultaneously, the U.S. government issued a new dual-use biothreat research review policy.

The board was unanimous on allowing the Kawaoka paper to be published with only slight modifications, however there was a nearly split vote on allowing the Fouchier study methods to be made public, as those findings were considered to pose a greater risk. To add to the controversy, a letter written by an NSABB board member sharply criticizing the review process and reversal decision was leaked to the press.

The Dutch government then demanded that Fouchier apply for an export control permit in order to submit a revised version of his paper for publication. Such permits are usually only necessitated for items considered to be weapons. The permit was eventually granted and it is expected that the paper will be published in Science in the near future.

These two bird flu papers have turned a spotlight on the role of government in oversight of dual use research of concern. The debate will likely continue well after the studies are published as new policies are implemented and efforts to strengthen international biosecurity frameworks are explored.

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