February 17th, 2012
06:27 PM ET
Two studies about a genetically altered strain of H5N1 influenza, a deadly avian flu, should be published in their full form, but not yet, experts at a meeting organized by the World Health Organization concluded Friday.
There has been concern the research on bird flu could be used for terroristic purposes. WHO said in a statement that "understanding of this research through communications and the review of biosafety and biosecurity" issues that the research raises is crucial, but did not say specifically how or when this review will happen.
WHO also said that it would extend the temporary moratorium on research with the laboratory-modified viruses, but research on the avian influenza found in nature must continue for public health protection.
The naturally occuring H5N1 bird flu virus has a high death rate associated with it; 60% of all humans who have been infected have died, said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general of health security and environment for the World Health Organization.
A research group in the Netherlands and a separate group at the University of Wisconsin have each created a mutated version of the H5N1 virus that can more easily transmit from mammal to mammal than the virus found in nature. They tested the mutated virus on ferrets, which closely mimic the human response to the flu.
The journal Science was going to publish the Dutch paper, and the journal Nature was going to publish the American paper. Both journals decided to refrain from publishing the studies so far.
Concerns about the research were first raised in December, the fear being that a highly transmittable virus could be used in a biological weapon.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity said in January that the data could be used to help prepare for a possible outbreak in the future. However, the board recommended the studies be published without "methods or details" to prevent misuse by terrorists. Science and Nature jointly released a statement on the matter.
Friday, the World Health Organization said more public health benefit would come from publishing the entire manuscripts than "urgent" partial publishing. But the WHO is going to continue its assessment of the biosafety and biosecurity aspects first.
"If you just have scientists in the room and no security people, it’s not enough," Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts said Friday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia. "The other side of the equation is, what do we know about the ease at which al Qaeda, for example, could actually produce this thing?"
Alberts said the original plan was to publish a redacted version of the papers in the middle of March, but that will not happen in light of the WHO decision.
"My reading is that both Nature and Science are to wait until we get some further information from WHO and other authorities about when we are to publish the full manuscripts," Alberts said.
Experts say it's important to get this information out about avian influenza to the people doing surveillance, especially in countries like Indonesia that have the biggest problems with this disease. But considering the risks for terrorism is important, Alberts said.
"Obviously this cannot go on for years," he said.
The best outcome would be the establishment of an international version of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, he said.
There also is talk of other ways to get information to people who need it besides publication of the papers, Alberts said.
For instance, there could be a list of 50 genetic mutations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that could be screened for; the technology for that exists. That could be done openly because all the mutations of H5N1 that are being kept secret have already been found individually in other viruses. It's only in combination that these mutations are dangerous. Alberts suggests a database of these mutations could be available to public health officials in developing countries, for example.
So where is this secret information? The Science paper is in a locked electronic file, and everyone who reviewed the papers was told to destroy their copies, Alberts said. The whereabouts of the Nature paper were not revealed at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.
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