The bioterrorism expert responsible for censoring scientific research which could lead to the creation of a devastating pandemic has admitted the information "is going to get out" eventually.

Professor Paul Keim, chairman of the United States National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, controversially recommended that researchers be stopped from revealing the precise mutations needed to make the H5N1 strain of bird-flu virus transmissible between humans.

In an interview with the Independent, he argued it had been necessary to limit the release of the scientific details because of fears that terrorists may use the information to create their own deadly H5N1 virus.

Keim said it was necessary to slow down the release of scientific information because it was clear that the world is not yet prepared for a strain of highly lethal H5N1 influenza that can be transmitted by coughs and sneezes.


"We recognised that, in the long term certainly, the information is going to get out, and maybe even in the midterm. But if we can restrict it in the short term and motivate governments to start getting busy in terms of building up the flu-defence infrastructure, then we've succeeded at a certain level.

"If we can slow down the release of the specific information that would enable somebody to reconstruct this virus and do something nefarious, even for a while, then that was a good thing," he said.

Withholding key details of the mutations needed to make an airborne strain of H5N1, would give time for governments to prepare for and prevent a possible pandemic, he said.

"The infrastructure to stop a pandemic in this area is not there. We just don't have the capabilities. The very first time we knew that the swine flu virus [coming out of Mexico] was there, it was already in 18 countries. I'm not confident at all that we have the surveillance capability to spot an emerging virus in time to stop it," he said.

"And even if we did spot it early on, I don't think we have sufficient vaccines. The vaccines aren't good enough, and the drugs are not good enough to stop this emerging and being a pandemic."

Although H5N1 spreads rapidly between birds, it has so far affected only about 600 people worldwide who have had direct contact with infected poultry. However, two teams of researchers have shown independently that it requires only five mutations for H5N1 to become an airborne pathogen for laboratory ferrets, the standard animal model for human influenza.

Keim said that the biosecurity board was asked by the US Government to review the two independent studies because they had already been submitted to the journals Science and Nature. The board had to make a recommendation on whether any or all of the information should be published.

Scientists involved in showing how the H5N1 bird-flu virus can be transmitted in the air between ferrets have criticised the biosecurity board's decision to part-censor its research on the grounds that it would hinder the development of new vaccines and drugs.


"The argument that we need this information to make better vaccines and better drugs does not ring true," Keim said. "There are lots of ways to make drugs against this virus. The very drugs they were using against this virus were the very same ones used against other flu viruses. The drug-invention problem has nothing to do with having this virus to hand."

- Independent