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Contentious bird flu study to be published after vetting

GENEVA -- Bird flu experts meeting in Geneva on Friday ruled that controversial research on a mutant form of the virus potentially capable of being spread among humans should be made public.

Security assessments must however be carried out first before the two studies can be published and the research can continue, scientists agreed at a two-day meeting at the World Health Organization.

“The consensus was that in the interest of public health the full papers should be published,” said Professor Ron Fouchier from the Institute of Virology in the Netherlands, the scientist behind one of the studies.

U.S. bio-security chiefs urged in November that key details of the papers remain unpublished, citing fears of a pandemic should a mutated H5N1 virus escape the laboratory.

Scientists agreed on January 20 to a 60-day moratorium on further studies.

That deadline will now be extended for an unspecified time to allow for a wider group of scientists to examine the risks and allow for public discussion, Fouchier said at a conference following the meeting.

“This is very important research that needs to move forward,” he said.

“The question is, how can it be done safely, what about bio-security, how do we prevent access to bad people?”

“Once there's agreement on all those issues then we can continue our work.”

The 22 participants included the two teams of researchers and representatives of the scientific journals Science and Nature who were asked to withhold publication.

The editor of the U.S. journal Science said later Friday he supports the decision of the bird flu experts in Geneva.

“The supreme court of decision-making on these things should not be me,” said Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, which along with the British journal Nature had been on track to publish partial versions of the research in March.

Alberts said the two journals were working closely with each other and with authorities, and would await further information before making plans to publish the manuscripts in full in the months ahead.

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