When Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Tokyo genetically engineered a strain of the H5N1 influenza virus that could potentially be transmitted between humans, his intentions were pure.

But the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has anxiously recommended the restricted publication of Kawaoka’s findings - only to select individuals on a 'need-to-know' basis – claiming its publication “could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”

Kawaoka has agreed to a 60-day moratorium on avian flu transmission research, but insists his work needs to continue if pandemics are to be prevented.

“As the risks of such research and its publication are debated by the community, I argue that we should pursue transmission studies of highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses with urgency,” wrote Kawaoka. “H5N1 viruses circulating in nature already pose a threat, because influenza viruses mutate constantly and can cause pandemics with great losses of life.”

The advisory board is concerned that the risk of misuse or accidental release outweighs the research benefits, but Kawaoka says that given the potential consequences of a global outbreak, it is crucial to know whether these viruses can ever become transmissible.

His opinion paper is published in the journal Nature.