New Paper Points at Ways to Stop—Not Start—a Bird-Flu Pandemic
In the end, the paper once deemed too dangerous to publish turned out to be about saving lives.
On Thursday, Science magazine published research showing that a few mutations in the bird-flu virus, H5N1, could turn it into a disease easily transmitted, by air, among mammals. Normally, the virus doesn’t spread easily among people, but when it does, the death rate is high. So when Ron Fouchier, a virologist at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and the paper’s lead author, created this new strain, it ignited a storm of controversy as scientists and policy makers debated whether he had identified warning signs of a potential pandemic—or given terrorists and sloppy scientists a recipe for unleashing a plague.
In December, a federal advisory panel, backed by the National Institutes of Health, censored the paper, saying that scientific data had to be removed before it was published.
The tone was quite different on Thursday. “I believe the benefits are greater than the risk,” said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of the NIH. One major advantage: The paper shows mutations to watch for in the wild, before they become the seeds of a pandemic flu.