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TGen-NAU professor leads national panel in precedent-setting policy published in Science and Nature

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. Feb. 1, 2012 The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) today published a precedent-setting policy statement warning about the "unusually high magnitude" risk from unrestricted publication of avian flu research.

The NSABB is chaired by Dr. Paul Keim, Director of the Pathogen Genomics Division of the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), and a Regents Professor of Biology at Northern Arizona University, and Director of NAU's Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics.

The NSABB statement concerns recent, though as yet unpublished, research that showed how a strain of deadly avian flu virus could be made that is easily transmitted between mammals, including humans. Currently, the highly pathogenic A/H5N1 avian influenza virus though a serious public health concern since its identification in Asia in 1997 rarely infects people, because it is not easily transmitted among mammals.

The NSABB, which represents dozens of government and academic entities, was asked by the federal government to review the research prior to its publication because of its "dual use," meaning its potential for being used for good or bad purposes.

"A balance must be struck between academic freedom and protecting the greater good of mankind from potential danger," Dr. Keim said, quoting from the policy statement.

The NSABB weighed the benefits of the recent research, which could produce greater preparedness and potentially produce novel strategies leading to disease control, against the threat that details of the research could fall into the wrong hands.

"Because the NSABB found that there was significant potential for harm in fully publishing these results and that the harm exceeded the benefits of publication, we therefore recommended that the work not be fully communicated in an open forum," the policy statement says. "We found the potential risk of public harm to be of unusually high magnitude."

The NSABB statement was published online today by the prestigious scientific journals Science and Nature. It will be published in print by the journals later this month.

"Our concern is that publishing these experiments in detail would provide information to someone or some organization or government that would help them develop similar mammal-adapted influenza A/H5N1 viruses for harmful purposes," the statement says. "A pandemic or the deliberate release of a transmissible highly pathogenic influenza A/H5N1 virus would be an unimaginable catastrophe for which the world is currently inadequately prepared."

The statement notes that science is in a revolutionary period of dramatically expanded technological capabilities, enabling the increased ability to manipulate the genetic material of microbes.

"With this has come unprecedented potential for better control of infectious diseases and significant societal benefit. However, there is also a growing risk that the same science will be deliberately misused and that the consequences could be catastrophic," says the statement, which calls for a "rapid and broad international discussion of dual use research policy concerning A/H5N1 influenza virus with the goal of developing a consensus on the path forward."


Contact: Steve Yozwiak
The Translational Genomics Research Institute

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