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WASHINGTON — A scientist who created an easier-to-spread version of the bird flu said his work isn’t as risky as people fear. The U.S. government is asking its biosecurity advisers to reconsider if the research should be made public.
Bird flu only occasionally sickens people, mostly after close contact with infected poultry, but it can be deadly when it does. Scientists have long feared it might mutate to spread more easily and thus spark a pandemic. Researchers in the Netherlands and Wisconsin were studying how that might happen when they created bird flu strains that at least some mammals — ferrets — can spread by coughing or sneezing.
The work triggered international controversy. U.S. health officials urged the details be kept secret so would-be terrorists couldn’t copy the strains, and critics worried that a lab accident might allow deadly viruses to escape.
But contrary to public perceptions, the airborne bird flu didn’t kill the ferrets, Dr. Ron Fouchier of the Netherlands’ Erasmus University told a meeting of U.S. scientists Wednesday. In fact, he said those previously exposed to regular flu were protected from severe disease.
Fouchier said publishing the research would help other scientists monitor the so-called H5N1 bird flu for similar mutations in the wild, and to test vaccines and treatments.
A federal biosecurity panel first sounded the alarm about the research, concerned about the easier mammal-to-mammal spread. The U.S. is asking that panel to conduct another review of the two laboratories’ work, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health said Wednesday. He said the board should hear some new data that came to light at a recent closed-door meeting of the World Health Organization, where international flu experts concluded the research eventually should be published.