Scientists worried that H5N1 research withholding may be slippery slope

Scientists working with avian influenza are concerned about a recent decision by the U.S. government to ask two scientific journals to withhold portions of a controversial study.

A panel of biosecurity experts advised the U.S. government to object to the publication of portions of two studies that showed how the H5N1 avian flu virus could be made more transmissable to humans. They are also considering that the government recommend that researchers and journals be asked to agree to a short-term moratorium on publishing any similar work, according to

Researchers fear that it may become more difficult to publish any work aimed at answering one of the key questions in influenza science, specifically how viruses that normally infect other species evolve to become viruses that infect humans. In the short term, many believe it could become harder to publish work relating to this question if it touches H5N1.

Paul Keim, an anthrax expert who is currently the acting chair of the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity, said that scientists, policy makers and public health officials need to come to an agreement on how much of such work is safe to put in the public domain.

“A short-term publication moratorium is not essential for this, but I think that it would be useful,” Keim said, reports. "We know that there is a lot of research occurring in this specific area and with every paper, the situation changes. Setting policy in such an environment is difficult and it is hard enough already.”

It remains unclear as to whether the board will recommend that the government ask for a moratorium. It is also far from certain how the journals would respond to such a request. The journals Science and Nature, both involved in the current controversy, have indicated that they are willing to discuss some kind of compromise.