A panel of experts invited to the "closed door" two-day international meeting at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, ruled on Friday morning that controversial studies on a mutant form of the H5N1 avian flu virus, transmissible among ferrets and potentially among humans, should be made public and that the research can continue.
However, the 22-panel agreed on extending the temporary 60-day moratorium on the mutant flu research and to delay publication of the two controversial flu papers that had ignited a fierce debate between flu scientists and United States biosecurity authorities.
“Given the high death rate associated with this virus -- 60% of all humans who have been infected have died -- all participants at the meeting emphasized the high level of concern with this flu virus in the scientific community and the need to understand it better with additional research," Dr. Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General of Health Security and Environment for the World Health Organization said in a statement.
However, Fukuda noted that because results from the mutant virus research “made it clear” that he virus had the potential to easily transmit between people “continued surveillance” of the virus was just as critically important as continuing the research.
Members of the panel agreed that delaying the publications of the entire research rather than urgently partially publishing the manuscripts would have more public health benefit.
“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 surrounding this research that should first be addressed,” Fukuda explained
Last year the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity ignited an all-out debate in the all-out debate in the scientific and public health communities when the board asked that the journals publishing the studies to delete certain key details from the two studies on new mutant strains of the H5N1 virus, in fear of a pandemic should the details of the mutated H5N1 virus H5N1 virus end up in the hands of bioterrorists or if the virus escapes the laboratory.
As a results the two journals, Nature and Science, agreed to redaction requested by the NSABB and withheld publication of the research.
Flu researchers had voluntarily agreed to a 60-day moratorium on further flu studies on Jan. 20, but in light of the latest decision will be extended for an unspecified time to allow for a “broader range of experts and interested parties relevant to these issues” to participate in future WHO meetings.
The WHO also made public a list that revealed the panel of experts who attended the meeting showing that the panel was mostly made up of academic flu researchers almost no public-health officials or experts in the fields of risk assessment, biosafety or biosecurity.
However the WHO had explained that the meeting participants were limited to “people who have direct involvement or knowledge about these two studies, their review or oversight, or potential dissemination of results”, and that the preliminary meeting was just limited to clarifying “key facts about the two research studies and the most urgent related issues”.
WHO had stressed that the preliminary discussion will be on specific issues that are of direct concern and “many broader concerns that have been raised will not be addressed,” and expected more discussions from a “wider input” at a later date that has yet to be determined.