The 2009 flu pandemic, although not especially deadly, revealed just how quickly a new influenza virus could elude surveillance and spread internationally. It also left health experts eying the disease that many fear could cause the next pandemic: H5N1, the avian flu. According to World Health Organization standards, that virus is phenomenally deadly, killing about half the people that contract it. So far, however, almost all the known cases came from people who were in direct contact with poultry; the flu doesn't seem to spread among mammals.
The great unanswered question was whether we could continue to rely on H5N1's limited transmission. Recently, some researchers set out to answer that question, and came up with a disturbing answer: it was relatively easy to evolve a form of H5N1 that spread in ferrets, another mammalian species, without it losing any of its virulence. Two labs identified the exact mutations that enabled this new host range, and were preparing to publish their results in Science and/or Nature. At that point, the US government's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) responded by requesting that the journals delay publication and limit the content released. That, in turn, prompted the viral research community to put a two-month hold on further research.
That's where things stood on February 2, when the New York Academy of Sciences hosted a panel discussion on H5N1 and other dual-use research (research that has both public benefit and weapons applications). The panel included two members of the NSABB, representatives from both Science and Nature, a number of virus researchers, a public health expert, and a member of the Defense Department, and they spent two hours in a lively and sometimes contentious discussion of how to handle our current situation.
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