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US journal prints controversial bird flu research

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. journal Science published research Thursday on how a mutant strain of bird flu may spread among mammals and possibly humans, following months of controversy over the risks of bioterrorism.

The paper detailed how a Dutch lab engineered an H5N1 bird flu virus that can be transmitted in the air among ferrets, and followed the publication last month of findings by a U.S.-based team that made similar advances.

Last year, a U.S. biosecurity panel called for only heavily edited results of the two papers to be released, for fear that an ill-intentioned scientist might be able to use the data to unleash a potent and lethal form of bird flu that humans could catch easily.

But international experts have since agreed that the benefits of publishing outweighed the risks.

Deadly flu pandemics have killed millions of people in the past. Until now, there have been fewer than 600 human cases of H5N1 bird flu infection in the world since it first infected people in Hong Kong in 1997, but more than half of all cases have been fatal.

The World Health Organization has tallied 606 human cases of bird flu since 2003 and 357 deaths, according to its latest report issued this month.

Lead researcher Ron Fouchier, a scientist at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, said the aim was to gain a better understanding of how avian flu is spread in order to prepare for a potential human outbreak.

“The virus did not kill the ferrets that were infected via the aerosol route,” said Fouchier, who has frequently stressed that the dangers of his research were overblown in the media.

“Anybody with access to the scientific literature can read all about dangerous pathogens that are more interesting to terrorize the world with than our particular virus.”

Instead, Fouchier and his colleagues showed that the H5N1 virus could become airborne among ferrets — considered a reasonable but not perfect model for humans — after as few as five mutations and without mixing H5N1 with another flu virus.

The previous paper by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin and colleagues, published in May in the British journal Nature, described how the virus could become airborne after a series of mutations and re-assortments with the 2009 H1N1 virus, or “swine flu.”

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