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Post-mortem on mutant flu

The dust is beginning to settle on the months-long controversy over two studies in which the H5N1 avian influenza virus was modified to be transmissible between mammals. But scientists and authorities still need to address the lack of international oversight for studies in which pathogens are deliberately made more dangerous, speakers emphasized at a two-day meeting held last week at the Royal Society in London. The meeting brought together scientists, research funders and experts in security, bioethics and foreign policy, just days after the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) revised its earlier stance and recommended publication of the two studies.

In December 2011, the board recommended redaction of experimental details of the studies, on the basis of concerns about bioterrorism and the increased likelihood of accidental release of the viruses. But after considering revised versions of the manuscripts on 29–30 March, the NSABB voted unanimously in favour of full publication of the paper submitted to Nature by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and 12–6 for publication of the content (although not the specific wording) of the paper submitted to Science by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

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