Bird Flu Research To Remain Unpublished For Now
February 19, 2012

Bird Flu Research To Remain Unpublished For Now

A World Health Organization (WHO) panel has ruled that a pair of studies detailing how scientists were able to mutate the H5N1 bird flu virus into a strain that could lead to a global pandemic will not be published in the near future, various media outlets reported on Friday.

According to Eryn Brown of the Los Angeles Times, a 22-person panel of experts drafted by the WHO decided to extend a moratorium on the research indefinitely, announcing that scientific journals Nature and Science would not publish redacted versions of the research in the near future as had been planned. Rather, unedited versions of the research could be printed in the journals sometime "at a later date," Brown said.

The meeting of influenza experts and American security officials had been called by the WHO in order to act as an arbitrator between the scientists involved with the study and officials from the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), who had called on the work to be censored before it could appear in scientific journals, Reuters reporters Stephanie Nebehay and Kate Kelland said.

"Biosecurity experts fear mutated forms of the virus that research teams in The Netherlands and the United States independently created could escape or fall into the wrong hands and be used to spark a pandemic worse than the 1918-19 outbreak of Spanish flu that killed up to 40 million people," Nebehay and Kelland said.

WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Security and Environment Keiji Fukuda told Reuters that a deal had been reached to keep the studies secret pending additional analysis of the risks involved with making it public, adding that there while there was "a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies," there were also "significant public concerns surrounding this research that should first be addressed."

The two studies in question were conducted by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Both scientists headed up research which led to the genetic engineering of new H5N1 strains that could easily be transmitted through the air amongst humans and other mammals, according to Brown.

In its natural state, the illness is not likely to spread from one human to another, but has a reported 60% fatality rate, which the Times says has some health experts concerned "that if one of the newly engineered, highly contagious bird-flu strains somehow escaped the laboratory -- or if people with intent to do harm learned how to engineer and release their own lethal bird-flu strains using methods published in the papers -- it could unleash a deadly global pandemic“¦ Many scientists, in turn, argued that moving forward with the H5N1 research was essential for developing prevention and treatments if a pandemic were to arise naturally."

On Thursday, before the WHO ruling was handed down, Science editor Dr. Bruce Alberts addressed the issue at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia. Alberts told reporters in attendance, including BBC News Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh, that his "default position" was to publish full versions of both studies.

"Our position is that, in the absence of any mechanism to get the information to those scientists and health officials who need to know and need to protect their populations and to design new treatments and vaccines, our default position is that we have to publish in compete form," he said during the conference, adding that the same mutations described in the studies were "likely to happen at some point in the wild" and that Fouchier's and Kawaoka's research should serve as a "real wake-up call to the world."

However, following the WHO announcement, Alberts told Denise Grady of the New York Times that his journal would wait until it is deemed appropriate to publish full versions of the studies. He also expressed his surprise that the expert panel reached their verdict in such a short amount of time, according to Grady.

As previously reported here on RedOrbit, in January, Fouchier and Kawaoka agreed to halt their controversial research for 60 days in order to allow experts to determine whether or not the research could lead to a global pandemic or a possible bioterrorism threat.

A letter announcing the decision -- written by Fouchier, Kawaoka, and more than three dozen other top influenza researchers -- appeared late last month in both Science and Nature, according to previous reports by Grady.

“The continuous threat of an influenza pandemic represents one of the biggest challenges in public health,” the authors wrote. “Recent research breakthroughs identified specific determinants of transmission of H5N1 influenza viruses in ferrets. Responsible research on influenza virus transmission using different animal models is conducted by multiple laboratories in the world using the highest international standards of biosafety and biosecurity practices that effectively prevent the release of transmissible viruses from the laboratory.”

“Despite the positive public-health benefits these studies sought to provide, a perceived fear that the ferret-transmissible H5 HA viruses may escape from the laboratories has generated intense public debate in the media on the benefits and potential harm of this type of research. We would like to assure the public that these experiments have been conducted with appropriate regulatory oversight in secure containment facilities by highly trained and responsible personnel to minimize any risk of accidental release,” they added.


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