Researchers announce 60-day suspension to allow debate about security of their attempts to prevent spread of virus.
Scientists trying to prevent bird flu from killing millions of people have suspended their work because of fears they might accidentally cause the epidemic they hope to stop, according to a letter published on Friday in scientific journals. Researchers from around the world signed a letter in the Nature and Science journals in which they announced a 60-day suspension to allow a public debate about the security of their work. The letter comes after developments in the study of bird flu in which scientists have created a similar virus that can be passed between mammals.

Bird flu can only be caught by humans from birds such as chickens but it is usually lethal. Scientists fear that bird flu could mutate into a form that humans could catch from other humans. After the first world war, an influenza mutation (known as Spanish influenza) killed an estimated 40 million people.

Last year, the United States government asked scientific journals to restrict their coverage of the new developments in the study of bird flu out of fear that the information could be used by terrorists to create biological weapons.

Wendy Barclay, professor of influenza virology at Imperial College, London, one of the signatories of the letter, said the influenza research community was fully aware of the risks and benefits of their work.

“The idea of the 60-day pause is to allow time for everyone concerned, media, ethicists and scientists alike, to be involved in the debate,” she said. “It is imperative that we do not react on impulse but weigh up the benefits this type of research can bring and review again the appropriate ways to control dangerous pathogens that we work with in the closed laboratory.”

(Snip) Although research is carried out under high security, the possibility of human error, accident or a criminal act leading to an escape of the viruses is a constant concern.

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