A laboratory in China whose research findings on bird flu have been contested by the Chinese government, has suspended its research into the disease.
The decision followed a meeting between the researchers and China's Ministry of Agriculture to clarify regulations for handling the bird flu virus (H5N1) and infected birds.
On 6 July, the Joint Influenza Research Programme, run by Shantou University in China and the University of Hong Kong, published a paper in Nature documenting an outbreak of H5N1 at Qinghai Lake in western China (see China: migrant birds 'open flight path for bird flu').
Their findings suggested that the virus had originated in Guangdong province in southern China.
A day later, the Ministry of Agriculture denied that there had been any bird flu outbreaks in Guangdong this year. Jia Youling, director-general of the ministry's veterinary bureau, added that the Joint Influenza Research Programme did not have the facilities to handle the virus (see Chinese ministry questions bird flu findings).
The researchers maintained that their procedures met World Health Organization standards.
According to a statement issued by the two universities on 25 July, Chinese regulations were changed on 30 May. This, the statement adds, was after the group submitted their paper to Nature.
According to the Reuters news agency, the new rules mean that research groups must seek permission from the Ministry of Agriculture before carrying out any research on organisms that cause deadly diseases. They also restrict research on H5N1 to three government laboratories.
The universities' statement says these new rules were not brought to the attention of the researchers at the joint centre "until rather recently".
After meeting ministry officials on 9 July to clarify the new rules, the researchers applied to the Ministry of Agriculture for permission to work on "highly pathogenic micropathogens". They have suspended their research on H5N1 while they await permission.
The statement adds that although Shantou University and the University of Hong Kong "are prepared to take all necessary actions to safeguard academic freedom, they do not feel this is an issue relating to academic freedom".The H5N1 virus has killed 55 people in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam since December 2003.