The most reasonable explanation for the halt to bird flu research at sites around the world is that a mutated and more virulent strain of flu has been created and it could escape the labs.
The Independent reported that 39 researchers from around the world wrote a joint letter to the Journals Science and Nature. In their letter, the researchers promised to suspend operations for 60 days because,
"We realize that organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work. To provide time for these discussions, we have agreed on a voluntary pause of 60 days on any research involving a mutation to highly pathogenic influenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals,"
The problem is not just with the security or safety of the research facilities, but with two major fears: that someone could obtain the virus and use it as a bioweapon; and that the latest outbreak of H1N1 caused a death rate of about 60 per cent of about 600 people that were known to have been infected.
There are also the issues of the facilities' ability to withstand a well coordinated and aggressive terrorist attack; and whether an accident could allow the virus to escape the labs.
Finally, publishing anything about the key details of the work would present such trouble that a federal advisory panel recommended against publishing any major details about converting a lethal virus into an even more lethal virus. In other words, publishing anything close to a recipe could encourage any number of unstable political entities to work on developing a bioweapon.
NPR reports that a landmark advisory has come from the National Institutes of Health Office of Biotechnology Activities. The agency's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity advises the government and has said in no uncertain terms that key details of the work should not be published openly.This is the first time that a statement against openly publishing research information has come from this board, even with the rise in terrorist threat and the weaponized anthrax scares.
The mutated virus comes from the work of Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The two researchers worked with ferrets and came up with a mutation that communicates between the animals by airborne methods. They claim that there are benefits and opportunities that come from their research, but realize that some form of discussion must go on before they do any more work with this highly virulent virus.
Hopefully, the ferret transmissible airborne virus has never been tested on humans, so it is not known whether the mutation will jump across species and spread through the human population.
At any rate, the world of science has entered a new era where unstable and dangerous sociopolitical threats must be taken seriously. With some substances, no security is perfect security, and life on Earth must be put ahead of academic openness when research creates extremely lethal substances.