“There is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies. However, there are significant public concerns surrounding this research that should first be addressed,” said Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director-general for health security and environment.
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.
Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman, said that “there must be a much fuller discussion of risk and benefits of research in this area and risks of the virus itself.”
WHO said experts at the meeting included lead researchers of the two studies, scientific journals interested in publishing the research, funders of the research, countries that provided the viruses, bioethicists and directors from several WHO-linked laboratories specialising in influenza.
The H5N1 virus, first detected in Hong Kong in 1997, is entrenched among poultry in many countries, mainly in Asia, but is hard for humans to catch. But it is known to have infected nearly 600 people worldwide since 2003, killing half of them.
Last year, two teams of scientists — one led by Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam 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, while remaining as deadly as it is now.
Such research is seen as vital for scientists working to develop vaccines, diagnostic tests and drugs that could be deployed in the event of an H5N1 pandemic.
In December, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science, to withhold details of the research for fear it could be used by bioterrorists.
The board 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.
WHO voiced concerns, and flu researchers from around the world declared a 60-day moratorium on Jan. 20 on “any research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses” that produce easily contagious forms.
Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of the journal Science, said it is likely the paper submitted to Science and to the journal Nature will be published in full. When asked how the journal is safeguarding copies of the as-yet-unpublished paper, he said it is in a locked electronic file and is password-protected. Reviewers of the paper were asked to destroy their copies.
Alberts said it is still not clear how the scientists in Geneva plan to handle biosafety issues mentioned by the group, and it is still not clear when the papers will be published, but it will likely not be years.
“I hope this does not cause the world governments and WHO to stop working on this problem,” Alberts said of any potential fallout from the decision at a news briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver.