Laboratory Creation of a Highly Transmissible H5N1 Influenza Virus: Balancing Substantial Risks and Real Benefits

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Controversy erupted when influenza researchers announced that they had created an H5N1 influenza virus that was transmissible between ferrets. The controversy escalated when the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended that the work be published but recommended significant voluntary redactions. The responses to the NSABB action and to the research itself have been polarized. A readily transmitted H5N1 virus could be extraordinarily lethal; therefore, the risk for accidental release is significant, and deliberate misuse of the data to create a biological weapon is possible. However, the knowledge gained by these and future experiments under appropriate safeguards is likely to allow critical understanding of influenza transmission and virulence. It would be irresponsible to adopt either extreme solution: to prevent and censor the research or to allow unlimited distribution without careful review by an independent group, such as the NSABB.

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