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. Research on the viruses will also continue, though a moratorium on the work will remain in place 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 today at the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva. “We now have full support from the influenza community at large that this work is important, that it can be done safely. What else could a scientist like me hope for?”
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 fear that one such genetic change may make H5N1 more contagious among humans, touching off a pandemic that could kill millions.
The meeting was organized after Fouchier’s group and another team led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin at Madison 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.
“This virus has been around for 15 years now, and some experts have said, ‘It’s been 15 years, there’s no pandemic, so this will never cause a pandemic,’” Kawaoka said in an interview. “These two studies show that that’s not the case. These viruses have an ability to transmit, at least in ferrets, so possibly in humans.”
The work also is needed to guide vaccine development because some of the mutations made by Fouchier and Kawaoka are present among H5N1 viruses circulating in birds in some countries, Kawaoka said.
The two groups agreed in December to suspend their work for 60 days, until March 20, after the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, or NSABB, asked two journals to censor some details of the work to ensure it wouldn’t “fall into the wrong hands.”
Guidelines from regulators on the safety conditions under which the research can be continued should become available “within a matter of weeks” Fouchier said.
The research is done in so-called BSL-3 enhanced laboratories that limit access to a small group of scientists and where the viruses are stored “almost in a bank vault,” Fouchier said.
While there’s “no hint” of security lapses at either laboratory, the group agreed it’s worth re-examining the conditions under which the research is carried out, said Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general for health security and the environment, who was chairman of the meeting.
“The idea of a virus like H5N1 being more highly transmissible than the other H5N1 viruses out there is a sobering thought,” Fukuda told reporters on a conference call. “We’ve had H5N1 viruses around for 10, 15 years, but we have not had viruses that look to be as transmissible as these.”
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. NSABB, and Anthony S. Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which funded the research.
“The consensus was strong among the people in the room,” Fauci said in an interview. “It wasn’t unanimous. As an NIH official I accepted and continue to accept the NSABB’s recommendations.”
The group agreed that censoring the manuscripts and providing the full information only to certain scientists “just would not work,” Fauci said.
“Not only would it not work, but it’s likely that the manuscript would wind up on the Internet anyway,” he said.
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 toward best practices, which puts peer pressure on everybody.”