WHO extends delay of publication of H5N1 research

Public health concerns should first be addressed

The World Health Organisation has decided to extend a temporary moratorium on research into laboratory modified versions of the H5N1 ‘bird flu’ virus.

Scientists in the Netherlands and the US have created versions of the H5N1 virus, which could potentially spread more easily among humans.

By using ferrets in a laboratory, the researchers proved it was possible to change H5N1 into an aerosol-transmissable virus that could be spread rapidly through the air.

The Erasmus University study in the Netherlands and the other by scientists at the University of Wisconsin alerted the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSBB), which argued that the research could be used by terrorists to set up a biological attack using the virus.

The researchers were planning to publish their research in the journals Science and Nature, but have now agreed to redact their manuscripts at the request of the NSBB.

A Geneva, Switzerland meeting of 22 scientists and journal representatives agreed that delayed publication of the full research would have more public health benefit than publishing it in part.

‘Given the high death rate associated with this virus – 60% of all humans who have been infected have died – all participants at the meeting emphasised the high level of concern with this flu virus in the scientific community and the need to understand it better with additional research,’ said Dr Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general of Health Security and Environment for the World Health Organisation.

‘The results of this new research have made it clear that H5N1 viruses have the potential to transmit more easily between people, underscoring the critical importance for continued surveillance and research with this virus.’

Fukuda added: ‘There is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies. However there are significant public concern issues surrounding this research that should first be addressed.’

The WHO said experts would now look at what information is already in the public domain and how that relates to the contents of these research papers.

A further meeting is likely to take place in a couple of months’ time.