Flu Experts—and One Ethicist—Debate Controversial H5N1 Papers

Exactly how much and which parts of two controversial H5N1 flu studies will be published could be decided today and tomorrow at a meeting in Geneva. The World Health Organization (WHO) has invited 22 experts from around the world to discuss—and debate—whether and how to publish the research, which describes how scientists made the H5N1 avian influenza virus transmissible between ferrets, a common mammalian model for influenza. The meeting is closed to the public and to journalists, and WHO has kept the invite list under wraps until today.

The final list has few surprises and is dominated by influenza specialists. The only real outsider appears to be Jerome Singh, an expert on ethics and health law from the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa. Singh has studied South Africa's apartheid-era bioweapons program, called Project Coast, which was active in the 1970s and 1980s.

Also present are Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who led the two studies and who want to publish them in full; Paul Keim, acting chair of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), the panel that recommended leaving key details unpublished; editors from Nature and Science, the two journals that are considering publishing the papers; and representatives from the five WHO collaborating centers for the study of influenza. Three representatives are attending from Indonesia, one of the countries hardest-hit by H5N1. An Indonesian lab reportedly gave Fouchier the virus that he used as starting material. There's one representative of the Vietnamese lab with which Kawaoka collaborates, and from which he reportedly received the flu sample used in his study.