Paul Keim warns H5N1 research will become accessible

The chairman of the U.S. government board that recommended censoring portions of controversial H5N1 avian flu research recently acknowledged that the information would eventually become accessible to those actively seeking it.

Professor Paul Keim, the chairman of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, asked the journals Science and Nature not to publish the precise mutations that can turn the H5N1 avian flu virus into a form transmissible in humans, according to the Telegraph.

Keim argued that it is necessary to slow the information's release because the strains created by two independent teams in the United States and the Netherlands are highly lethal and spread easily by air. The world, Keim said, is not prepared to face such a potentially calamitous pandemic.

"We recognized that, in the long term certainly, the information is going to get out, and maybe even in the midterm," Keim said, the Telegraph reports. "But if we can restrict it in the short term and motivate governments to start getting busy in terms of building up the flu-defense infrastructure, then we've succeeded at a certain level."

Kleim lamented that world governments currently lack proper surveillance capacities and said that existing vaccines are not good enough to stop the virus from taking hold in the human population.

"The infrastructure to stop a pandemic in this area is not there. We just don't have the capabilities," Keim said, the Telegraph reports. "The very first time we knew that the swine flu virus [coming out of Mexico] was there, it was already in 18 countries. I'm not confident at all that we have the surveillance capability to spot an emerging virus in time to stop it."

Virologists, including those involved in the H5N1 research, have criticized the board's recommendation on the grounds that it interferes in the development of new vaccines that could be used to fight the virus. Keim disagrees with that assessment wholeheartedly.

"The argument that we need this information to make better vaccines and better drugs does not ring true," Keim said, according to the Telegraph. "There are lots of ways to make drugs against this virus. The very drugs they were using against this virus were the very same ones used against other flu viruses. The drug-invention problem has nothing to do with having this virus to hand."

Regardless, Keim said that he is supportive of the type of research that led to the creation of the airborne H5N1 virus, despite other members of the board being far from convinced.

"I don't think we need this virus to prove that Tamiflu works against it," Keim said, the Telegraph reports. "And we know that the H5 antigen is not a great antigen for vaccines, we don't need the virus to tell us that. But there are some experiments that can only be done with the live virus and I'm in favor of keeping the virus for those type of experiments."