SATURDAY, Feb. 18 (HealthDay News) -- Research on a mutated,
more contagious form of the bird flu virus can be published in
full, the World Health Organization announced Friday, despite
concerns that bioterrorists could use the information to start a
The decision came during a special meeting of 22 bird flu
experts in Geneva, Switzerland, that was convened by the WHO to
discuss the "urgent issues" that have swirled around possible
publication of the two bird flu studies since last November,
The New York Times reported Saturday.
Most of those at the meeting felt that any theoretical terrorist
risk was outweighed by the "real and present danger" of similar flu
virus mutations occurring naturally in the wild, and by the need
for the scientific community to share information that could help
identify exactly when the virus might be developing the ability to
spread more easily, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the
Times. Fauci represented the United States at the meeting.
"The group consensus was that it was much more important to get this information to scientists in an easy way to allow them to work on the problem for the good of public health," Fauci said. "It was not unanimous, but a very strong consensus."
However, Fauci added, the United States was not part of that
consensus. U.S. bio-security chiefs had urged last November that
critical specifics of the papers remain unpublished.
Although the bird flu virus, known as H5N1, rarely infects
people, it appears to be highly lethal when it does. Of about 600
known cases, more than half have been fatal. If the virus were able
to spread more easily from birds to humans, experts have estimated
that millions of people could die after being infected.
The two studies at the center of the debate were to be published
in the journals
Nature late last year. The papers, which were funded by the
U.S. National Institutes of Health, describe how the H5N1 virus
could mutate relatively easily into a strain that could spread
rapidly among humans. The research was done by scientists at the
University of Wisconsin and in the Netherlands.
The editors of both journals said they plan to publish the
papers in full at a future date.
"Discussions at the WHO meeting made it clear how ineffective redaction and restricted distribution would be for the Nature paper. It also underlined how beneficial publication
of the full paper could be. So, that is how we intend to proceed,"
Dr. Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of
Nature, said in a statement. "As was expressed at the WHO meeting, there is a need first to explore how best to communicate the issues of publication to a concerned public, and to review safety assurance of labs who would act on this publication. I fully support the WHO's further efforts in this regard."
Speaking at a scientific meeting in Vancouver,
Science editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts had this to say about
the WHO decision: "So, my reading is that both
Science are to wait until we get some further information
from the WHO and other authorities of when, in fact, we are to
publish the full manuscript."
Before the two studies can be published, the experts at the WHO
meeting said, security assessments must be made, the
Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Another meeting on the remaining issues will be held at a future
date, the WHO said in a statement.
The scientists behind the research had agreed on Jan. 20 to
honor a 60-day moratorium on further studies, the
Herald reported, but that deadline will now be extended for
an unspecified time to allow for a wider examination of the risks
and for public discussion.
For more on how the bird flu virus might be able to infect
humans, visit the
U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious