H5N1 scientists halt research

Scientists studying the mutation of a potentially more lethal and airborne version of the bird flu virus have ceased their studies bowing to fears that the virus could escape or become a source of bioterrorism.

Thirty-nine scientists defended the research as crucial to the efforts of public health in a letter published in Science and Nature on Friday. The leaders of the two teams spearheading the research at Erasmus Medical College in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin - Madison were among the researchers who signed the letter. The scientists voluntarily agreed to suspend the research for 60 days, Reuters reports.

In December, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked the publications to censor research details from the Wisconsin and Erasmus teams. Experts in the field of biosecurity feared that an airborne version of the deadly bird flu virus could result in a pandemic worse than the 1918-19 outbreak of Spanish flu, which killed as many as 40 million people.

"There is obviously a controversy here over the right balance between risk and benefit," Daniel Perez, a virologist of the University of Maryland, said, according to Reuters. "I strongly believe that this research needs to continue, but that doesn't mean you can't call a time out."

As the governments and the scientific community determine whether or not the research can be safely conducted, the two month delay will pause any research involving the highly pathogenic version of the avian influenza H5N1 viruses.

"It's a responsible decision to suspend work on these viruses while agreement is being reached," Peter Openshaw, the director of the Center for Respiratory Infection at Imperial College London, said, according to Reuters. "I hope that these issues can be resolved and that this vital work will continue under appropriate conditions and not be driven underground."