A US government science advisory committee has urged key details be withheld so people seeking to do widespread harm would not be able to replicate the virus.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) reviewed two scientific papers relating to the findings and recommended the journals considering them “make changes in the manuscripts”, a statement said.
“Due to the importance of the findings to the public health and research communities, the NSABB recommended the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”
The virus in question is an H5N1 avian influenza strain that was genetically altered in a Dutch lab so it can pass easily between ferrets.
That means it is likely contagious among humans for the first time and could trigger a lethal pandemic if it emerged in nature or were set loose by terrorists, experts have said.
The H5N1 strain of bird flu is fatal in 60 per cent of human cases but only 350 people have so far died from the disease largely because it cannot yet be transmitted between humans.
Editors from Science and Nature say they are considering the US government’s request.
“At the same time, however, Science has concerns about withholding potentially important public health information from responsible influenza researchers,” Science editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts said in a statement.
Scientists could benefit from knowing about the virus because it could help speed new treatments to combat this and other related lethal forms of influenza, Mr Alberts added.
“Many scientists within the influenza community have a bona fide need to know the details of this research in order to protect the public, especially if they currently are working with related strains of the virus,” he wrote.
“Science editors will be evaluating how best to proceed,” he added, asking for more clarification on how the government would make the information available to “all those responsible scientists who request it”.
Nature’s editor-in-chief, Philip Campbell, said he was considering one of the two papers for publication and was in “active consultation” with the authors.
Mutant bird flu
The Dutch research team was led by Ron Fouchier at Rotterdam’s Erasmus Medical Centre.
The team said in September it had created a mutant version of the H5N1 bird flu virus that could for the first time be spread among mammals.
Mr Fouchier said in a statement his team had discovered that transmission of the virus was possible between humans “and can be carried out more easily than we thought”.
NSABB chair Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist, told Science magazine’s Science Insider report last month that he had huge concerns about the potential havoc the man-made virus could unleash.
“I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,” Mr Keim was quoted as saying.
“I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”