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Why did a US advisory board reverse its stance on publishing mutant flu papers?

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Late last year, two teams of scientists announced that they had mutated the H5N1 ‘bird flu’ virus so that it can spread easily between mammals, an ability that their wild cousins lack. The research aimed to understand how natural viruses could evolve into more dangerous forms. But it also raised concerns that the mutant strains could cause a pandemic if they were accidentally released or used in a terrorist attack.

So what now? The papers will be published and the research will continue, slowed only by a few months. Fouchier says that the delay was necessary to investigate the issue and communicate it to the public. “We needed to take this time,” he says. Keim agrees, noting that the debate has alerted people to the problem of “dual-use research”, which could be used for either good or ill, and how such research should be managed. “It’s not settled,” he says.

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