New York: Researchers studying a potentially more lethal, airborne version of the bird flu virus have suspended their studies because of concerns the mutant virus they have created could be used as a devastating form of bioterrorism or accidentally escape the lab.In a letter published in the journals Nature and Science on Friday, 39 scientists defended the research as crucial to public health efforts, including surveillance programs to detect when the H5N1 influenza virus might mutate and spark a pandemic.But they are bowing to fear that has become widespread since media reports discussed the studies in December that the engineered viruses "may escape from the laboratories" -- not unlike the frightful scenario in the 1971 science fiction movie "The Andromeda Strain" -- or possibly be used to create a bioterror weapon.Among the scientists who signed the letter were leaders of the two teams that have spearheaded the research, at Erasmus Medical College in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as influenza experts at institutions ranging from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the University of Hong Kong.The decision to suspend the research for 60 days "was totally voluntarily," virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus told Reuters. The pause is meant to allow global health agencies and governments to weigh the benefits of the research and agree on ways to minimize its risk."It is the right thing to do, given the controversies in the U.S.," Fouchier said.The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity in December had asked Science and Nature to censor details of the research from the Erasmus and Wisconsin teams that was submitted for publication.Biosecurity experts fear that a form of the virus that is transmissible through airborne droplets--which the Erasmus and Wisconsin teams independently created--could spark a pandemic worse than the 1918-19 outbreak of Spanish flu that killed up to 40 million people."There is obviously a controversy here over the right balance between risk and benefit," says virologist Daniel Perez of the University of Maryland, who signed the letter supporting the moratorium. "I strongly believe that this research needs to continue, but that doesn`t mean you can`t call a time out."The researchers` decision shifts the focus of debate from whether the studies should be made public to whether they should have been done at all, given the theoretical possibility that a highly infectious virus could be stolen or escape from a lab. Some of the studies were funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH, told Reuters that the decision to fund the research was justified."The proposal the investigators put forth to do this research was appropriate," said Fauci, who was "actively involved" in the decision to call a moratorium on the research. "The value of the research is clear, as even the biosecurity board unanimously agreed."
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