Two studies showing how scientists mutated the H5N1 bird flu virus into a form that could cause a deadly human pandemic will be published only after experts fully assess the risks, the World Health Organisation
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND (FEBRUARY 17, 2012) (REUTERS -Two studies showing how scientists mutated the H5N1 bird flu virus into a form that could cause a deadly human pandemic will stay secret for now and be published only after experts fully assess the risks, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Friday (February 17).
After a high-level meeting of flu experts and U.S. security officials in Geneva, a WHO official said an agreement had been reached in principle to keep details of the controversial work secret until deeper risk analyses have been carried out.
The WHO called the meeting to break a deadlock between scientists who have studied the mutations needed to make H5N1 bird flu transmit between mammals, and the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which wanted the work censored before it was published in scientific journals.
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.
The H5N1 virus, first detected in Hong Kong in 1997, is entrenched among poultry in many countries, mainly in Asia, but so far remains in a form that is hard for humans to catch.
It is known to have infected nearly 600 people worldwide since 2003, killing half of them, a far higher death rate than the H1N1 swine flu which caused a flu pandemic in 2009/2010.
In its current form, people can contract H5N1 only through close contact with ducks, chickens, or other birds that carry it, and not from infected individuals.
Last year two teams of scientists - one led by Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Center and another led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin - said they had found that just a handful of mutations would allow H5N1 to spread like ordinary flu between mammals, and remain as deadly as it is now.
Fouchier, who took part in the two-day meeting at the WHO which ended on Friday, said the consensus of experts and officials there was "that in the interest of public health, the full paper should be published" at some future date.
"It was the view of the entire group that assembled here actually that the risks of this particular virus, or influenza viruses in general even, would be used as bio-terrorism agents, would be very, very slim. So the risks are not nil, but they are very, very small. On the other hand, this group has come out with the opinion very strongly how big the public health benefits are from doing this work, and it is weighing the risks and the benefits of this type of dual use research, from which the final conclusion has come, that the full details of this study need to be published because that would be in the interest of public health and research."
This type of research is seen as vital for scientists to be able to develop vaccines, diagnostic tests and anti-viral drugs that could be deployed in the event of an H5N1 pandemic.
In December, the NSABB asked two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science, to withhold details of the research for fear it could be used by bioterrorists.
They said a potentially deadlier form of bird flu poses one of the gravest known threats to humans and justified the unprecedented call to censor the research.