THE journals Science and Nature are mulling whether to publish details of a man-made mutant killer flu virus that has sparked concerns of mass deaths if it is released.
A US government's science advisory committee urged that key details be withheld so that people seeking to do harm to the public would not be able to replicate the virus which could cause millions of deaths.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) reviewed two scientific papers relating to the findings and recommended that the journals considering them "make changes in the manuscripts".
"Due to the importance of the findings to the public health and research communities, the NSABB recommended that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm."
The virus in question is an H5N1 avian influenza strain that was genetically altered in a Dutch lab so it can pass easily between ferrets.
That means it is likely contagious among humans for the first time, and could trigger a lethal pandemic if it emerged in nature or were set loose by terrorists, experts have said.
"Editors at the journal Science are taking very seriously a request by the NSABB to publish only an abbreviated version of a research report related to a strain of H5N1 avian influenza virus," Science editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts said.
"At the same time, however, Science has concerns about withholding potentially important public health information from responsible influenza researchers."
Scientists could benefit from knowing about the virus because it could help speed new treatments to combat this and other related lethal forms of influenza, Mr Alberts said.
"Many scientists within the influenza community have a bona fide need to know the details of this research in order to protect the public, especially if they currently are working with related strains of the virus," he wrote.
"Science editors will be evaluating how best to proceed," he said, asking for more clarification on how the government would make the information available to "all those responsible scientists who request it".
Nature editor-in-chief, Philip Campbell, said he was considering one of the two papers for publication and was in "active consultation" with the authors.
"We have noted the unprecedented NSABB recommendations that would restrict public access to data and methods and recognise the motivation behind them," he said.
"It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers. We are discussing with interested parties how, within the scenario recommended by NSABB, appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled."
Read the full commentary in PERTHNOW