Controversial Bird Flu Research Safe To Publish
April 2, 2012

Controversial Bird Flu Research Safe To Publish

A panel of US science research experts that had previously barred publication of research on key details of a mutant strain of H5N1 bird flu, reversed that decision on Friday, saying two papers on the research are okay to publish after all.

The announcement came after Dutch and US scientists made revisions to the research, and after an extensive review by the US National Science Advisory Board for Insecurity (NSABB).

The panel opposed publication of the research in December because it showed how an engineered H5N1 flu virus could pass easily in the air between ferrets. The experts feared this information could end up in the wrong hands and unleash a deadly pandemic.

The NSABB asked for researchers to edit the work in case terrorists were to get their hands on the data.  And after researchers complied, the non-governmental agency said the publications no longer revealed such threatening details and the work was now safe to publish.

“The data described in the revised manuscripts do not appear to provide information that would immediately enable misuse of the research in ways that would endanger public health or national security,” said the NSABB in a statement.

The experts say new evidence has emerged that underscores the fact that understanding specific mutations may improve international surveillance and public health and safety. “Global cooperation, critical for pandemic influenza preparedness efforts, is predicated upon the free sharing of information and was a fundamental principle in evaluating these manuscripts,” the statement added.

Dr. Paul Keim, acting chairman of the panel, said the revisions made it clear that the experiments were not as dangerous as they originally appeared to be and that the benefits of the research far outweighed a potential risk.

The recommendation in December to keep the research out of publication marked the first time ever a biosecurity panel had recommended keeping details of biological research secret. But the World Health Organization (WHO) opposed that recommendation, saying in February that the research should be published in full, because it provided important benefits to global public health.

Keim said the new decision was not a reversal of the December recommendation, because the revised manuscripts were so different from the originals. If the new versions had been presented in December, the NSABB would not have pushed for withholding any details, he said.

The controversy centered on two research papers -- one of which was submitted to the journal Science, and one to the journal Nature. Both papers showed that the H5N1 flu virus could easily mutate into a rapidly spreading strain, affecting the global human population.

The research teams created an airborne strain of the virus, meaning it could easily spread through the air from one ferret to another. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and was carried out by a team from Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and a team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

H5N1 bird flu does not often infect humans, but when it does, it is believed to kill more than half the people it infects, making it one of the most lethal influenza strains on the planet. But people almost never transmit the virus to one another when they contract it. If the virus were to become contagious, a deadly pandemic could ensue.

There have been 573 cases of H5N1 bird flu in humans in 15 countries since 2003, according to figures from the WHO. Nearly 60 percent of those cases resulted in death.

At the latest NSABB meeting, the experts agreed unanimously that the US team´s research should be published in full in the British journal Nature, as previously planned. However, the vote on the Dutch research paper, slated to appear in the US journal Science, was approved by a vote of 12-6, indicating some lingering fears among the panel.

NSABB board member Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, told the Associated Press last month that he had concerns about potential misuse of the research by amateurs.

“I am not personally worried about somebody in a cave somewhere,” he said. “I worry about the garage scientist, about the do-your-own scientist, about the person who just wants to see if they can do it.”

Ron Fouchier, the scientist behind the Dutch research, however, maintained that the mutant virus is not as lethal as the public has been led to believe, and urged publication to go forward so that scientists can prepare remedies should such a variant arise in nature.

And some pointed out that the scientists had already given presentations on their work at conferences and details of the research were already widely circulated, so redaction would have little purpose.

A Geneva meeting in February agreed that publishing only parts of the research would be useless, because they would not give the full context of a complete paper.

The NSABB said in its statement that the recommendations will be passed on to the US government for “review and consideration.”