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Jail-bird Flu: The Saga over Research into Bird Flu Reaches a Climax

from the Economist

RON FOUCHIER, of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, is the lead author of a controversial paper which lays out how deadly H5N1 avian influenza, or bird flu, can be made deadlier still. He believes this information should be widely disseminated, so that biologists can work on drugs or vaccines to combat the new strain---which Dr Fouchier and his team created by combining five flu mutations that are currently (and separately) circulating in the wild.

Others, however, disagree. The authorities in the Netherlands are pondering stopping the paper's publication because of fears its findings could be misused by hostile governments or terrorists. That pondering has been going on since December, and Dr Fouchier is growing restless. A decision is expected soon, but he recently went as far as saying that he would disregard it, if it went against him, and would publish regardless. He has now softened his stance, but defiance could see him in prison.

The contentious paper looks at how the new form of influenza passes between ferrets. Since, as flu goes, ferrets are good proxies for humans, and because H5N1 kills roughly half the people it infects---a mortality rate several times that of the "Spanish flu" that is reckoned to have claimed as many as 100m lives in 1918 and 1919---Dr Fouchier's work has touched a nerve.

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