Bird flu experts meeting in Geneva agreed to allow the publication of two studies that alarmed U.S. security officials by showing how to make the deadly H5N1 virus easily transmissible.
The publication of the papers will be delayed to allow a better explanation to the public of why the work is necessary, said Ron Fouchier, who led one of the research groups at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. A moratorium on the research will continue until health officials agree on the circumstances under which the research should be done.
“The consensus of this meeting is that in the interests of public health the full paper should be published,” Fouchier said at a press conference at the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva today. “This was based on the high public-health impact of this work and the need to share the details of the studies with a very big community, in the interests of science, surveillance and public health as a whole.”
The H5N1 strain of avian influenza has infected at least 584 people in 15 countries since 2003, killing almost 60 percent of them, according to the WHO. Most victims have had direct contact with infected birds, and the virus hasn’t so far shown a capacity to spread easily from person to person.
Still, flu viruses mutate constantly, causing scientists and health authorities to fret that one such genetic change may make H5N1 more contagious among humans, touching off a pandemic that may kill millions.
The meeting was organized after two groups of researchers - - one in the U.S. and the other in the Netherlands -- tweaked H5N1 to make it more transmissible among ferrets, the mammals whose response to flu is most like that of humans. The studies were intended to demonstrate what it would take for the virus to spread rapidly between people, giving scientists and health officials more information with which to prepare for a pandemic.
The researchers, led by Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, agreed to suspend the work for 60 days after the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked two journals in December to censor some details of the work to ensure it wouldn’t “fall into the wrong hands.”
The WHO invited 22 participants to the meeting, including Fouchier and Kawaoka, the editors of the journals Science and Nature, the heads of WHO flu labs worldwide, a representative of the U.S. biosecurity board, and Anthony S. Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which funded the work.
Censoring the research won’t stop scientists with “an intent to cause harm” from getting hold of the information, said David Heymann, a former assistant director-general of the WHO, who didn’t attend the meeting. Heymann is head of the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House, a London- based think tank.
“If rogue scientists want to get a hold of anything, they know how to do it and they will do it,” Heymann said in a telephone interview before the meeting ended. “What you can do is mold public opinion and scientific opinion towards best practices, which puts peer pressure on everybody.”
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