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Decision time for researchers of deadly bird

When 22 bird flu experts meet at the World Health Organization this week, they will be tasked with deciding just how far scientists should go in creating lethal mutant viruses in the name of research.

The hurriedly assembled meeting is designed to try to settle an unprecedented row over a call to ban publication of two scientific studies which detail how to mutate H5N1 bird flu viruses into a form that could cause a deadly human pandemic.

But experts say whatever the outcome, no amount of censorship, global regulation or shutting down of research projects could stop rogue scientists getting the tools to create and release a pandemic H5N1 virus if they were intent on evil.

"It doesn't matter how much you restrict scientists from doing good, bad people can still do bad things," said Wendy Barclay, an expert in flu virology at Imperial College London.

The WHO called the meeting, for February 16 and 17 in Geneva, to work out how to break a deadlock between scientists who have studied the mutations needed to make H5N1 transmit between mammals and U.S. biosecurity chiefs who want their work censored or "redacted" before it goes into scientific journals.

Since the two research teams, one in the Netherlands and one in the United States, have found that just a small number of mutations would allow H5N1 to spread like ordinary flu between mammals - and remain just as deadly as it is now - the meeting is likely to be tense and highly secretive. WHO officials repeatedly stress it will be a "closed door" event.
 
 

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