WHO Meeting of Flu Experts Calls for Full Publication of Controversial H5N1 Papers

A group of 22 international influenza experts convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that journals should publish the full details of two controversial experiments with the bird flu virus, H5N1. The decision contradicts a recommendation from a biosecurity advisory group to the U.S. government.

Last December, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) concluded that publications about the work—which for the first time made the deadly bird flu virus transmissible in mammals—should redact key details to reduce the chances of bioterrorists using the information. But at the WHO meeting, "there was a quite strong agreement that full disclosure of the information contained in these studies was preferable," said WHO's top influenza official, Keiji Fukuda, who led the meeting held over the past 2 days in Geneva and then spoke at a press conference.

The group, which included leading influenza researchers and public health officials, has no authoritative power. But it recommended that a moratorium now in effect related to further work with lab-made H5N1 variants that spread in mammals remain in place until more discussion occurs about biosecurity and biosafety issues. The timing of papers describing the work also remains up in the air, pending more effort into what Fukuda described as increasing "public awareness" about the importance of the work. "This was a most important step for making sure anxieties will not be unnecessarily increased," he said.

Fukuda emphasized that meeting participants widely agreed that the full information from these studies could aid both public health efforts and scientific research. Another reason for recommending full publication, Fukuda said, was that the group concluded that no mechanism exists to redact articles and then determine who has the right to know the full details. "There turned out to be a very large number of very complex and very difficult issues to solve related to how one would do that," Fukuda said. "Who would do it? Under what conditions would they be done? What would be the principles? Who would make those decisions? And who would make the decisions about who should get the articles?"

NSABB had recommended redacting two articles separately submitted to Science and Nature by the two labs. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which funded both studies through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), accepted those recommendations. "We've now had several more weeks to look at the different opinions coming out," Fukuda said. He said the thinking of the WHO group was "similar in many respects" to that of NSABB but has been "augmented by having much more time to look at the implications of many of the issues."

The participants included the researchers who did the studies and submitted manuscripts to Science and Nature, representatives from the two journals, the head of NIAID, and the chair of the NSABB. The recommendation to publish the papers in full was not unanimous. "I stand by the NSABB recommendations," says NIAID head Anthony Fauci, who stressed that the entire group agreed that the work was important and should continue. NSABB chair Paul Keim also disagreed with the WHO group's position regarding redaction. "I was disappointed in this conclusion, as it was one that NSABB worked hard to achieve so that some information would start to flow," says Keim, a geneticist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts, who was not at the WHO meeting, said he was surprised that the group made what he called this "strong" decision. "We didn't think that was going to happen today," said Alberts at a press conference. "I'm not completely clear about what the decision means because it's qualified, but one thing's for certain: The plan that we did have—both Nature and Science were on track to publish a redacted version in the middle of March—certainly that's now not going to happen."

In addition to allaying public concerns, the WHO group said extending the research moratorium now in place will allow a more thorough analysis of the biosafety issues raised by these experiments, which were done at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "We have absolutely no hint of any breakdown in the biosafety or biosecurity procedures associated with the studies done at both of these institutions," Fukuda said. "At the same time, we are very cognizant that a virus like H5N1 being more highly transmissible than the other H5N1 viruses out there is a scary thought. … It's really worth reexamining the conditions under which research for these types of viruses are done."