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Today, a scientific journal published a study that some people thought might never see the light of day. The paper describes experiments suggesting that a few genetic changes could make a bird flu virus contagious between people and cause a pandemic. This study and another one like it have sparked fierce debate about whether the full details should be kept secret because of fears that it might provide a recipe for a bio-weapon.
Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Yoshihiro Kawaoka is a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He's been trying to understand how flu viruses out in the wild might change and start spreading in people. So his team put a key gene from bird flu into a different flu virus and showed that just a few genetic changes could make the new virus contagious between ferrets, the lab's stand-in for people.
Last August, the researchers submitted a paper describing the work to the journal Nature.
DR. PHILIP CAMPBELL: I wasn't aware of it at that point, because we get 10,000 papers every year.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Philip Campbell is Nature's editor-in-chief. He heard about the paper when his editors said it needed an outside review by security experts to assess the risk that the information could be misused to make a bio-weapon. And he soon learned that this paper had also come to the attention of the U.S. government, along with another bird flu study.
Government officials consulted an advisory committee and it did something unprecedented.
CAMPBELL: For the first time, an organization with strong advisory influence, put it that way, was recommending that a paper not be published in full.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That was the start to a fight that made headlines for months. Scientists publicly argued for or against publication, while officials tried without success to find some legal way of giving the full details only to scientists with a need to know, like vaccine researchers and public health workers who track flu viruses. Finally, the government advisory committee reconsidered and said go ahead and publish, the benefits outweigh the risks.
That was a relief for Campbell. But he's not sure what lessons have been learned.
CAMPBELL: I don't think we're in a place where we know what to do the next time this happens.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And there will be a next time, that's according to David Relman. He's a Stanford University microbiologist who serves on the advisory committee.
DR. DAVID RELMAN: There will be work, there has been work done already that we're just not aware of, which will raise all of these same questions and force us to make some very difficult decisions.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Relman agreed with publishing the Nature paper, but he opposes publication of the other study that came under scrutiny. That one was done in the Netherlands. It made a bird flu virus that was not only contagious but could also kill ferrets, if they were directly given high doses.
Last week, the Dutch government gave the OK for that study to be submitted to the journal Science, which plans to publish it soon.
But this kind of flu research remains controversial. Work on transmissible bird flu viruses has been on hold since. Scientists voluntarily stopped their experiments to allow time for a discussion of the risks, benefits and necessary safeguards.
Ron Atlas is a bio-defense expert at the University of Louisville. He wants to see this research continue.
DR. RON ATLAS: Many of my colleagues feel that this sort of research is not going to lead to the next critical vaccine or therapeutic. I think that it's a stepwise progress towards where we need to be, and that the research is critical.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Reached by email, Yoshihiro Kawaoka said there is currently no specific date for lifting the moratorium. And the Dutch researcher, Ron Fouchier, said the timing might depend in part on a new policy that the U.S. government has just put in place for federally funded work like these flu studies. The policy now requires a full risk assessment of proposed experiments with certain dangerous pathogens before any work is done.
Anthony Fauci is head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He says officials recently did a review of government-funded projects that are already under way.
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: And there were just literally a handful that made us say we better take a closer look at that. That doesn't mean that they're not going to continue. It doesn't mean that they're not going to get published once the results are in. But it just calls for an extra look in accordance with the new policy.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Only 10 studies were flagged as needing that extra look. And of those 10, seven involved influenza.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.