A 22-member panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization has decided to extend a moratorium on research using laboratory-modified -- and potentially dangerous -- strains of the H5N1 influenza virus, also known as bird flu.
The group also announced that two controversial H5N1 papers temporarily shelved by the presitigious journals Science and Nature would not be redacted and published in the near future, as originally planned. Instead, the research may be published in full at a later date.
“There is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies,” said WHO assistant director-general of health security and environment Dr. Keiji Fukuda, in a statement.
The decisions, which were announced at the close of a two-day meeting Friday by the Geneva-based, United Nations-affiliated health agency, follow intense months of debate among scientists and public health officials over the risks and benefits of publishing the two studies.
Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin in Madison both led teams that engineered new strains of H5N1 that were easily transmitted through the air between mammals. In the wild, bird flu does not pass easily between humans, but it kills nearly 60% of the people it infects.
Some health officials worried 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.
In addition to extending the research moratorium until biosecurity issues can be worked out more fully, the WHO panel -- which included Fouchier, Kawaoka and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases -- determined that publishing the manuscripts in full would “have more public health benefit than urgently partially publishing." But further discussions will be necessary to determine when publication might occur, the experts added.
Bruce Alberts, the editor of Science, said in a press briefing at the annual meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, Canada, that he was surprised that the meeting had resulted in a quick consensus. He said that his journal had planned to release a redacted version of Fouchier’s paper in mid-March.
“That’s not going happen” now, he said.