‘Full disclosure’

A meeting of international influenza experts convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended two controversial papers on avian influenza (bird flu) be published in full. This runs counter to recommendations, made by an American biosecurity panel in December, that parts of the papers be redacted before publication.

The two experiments, run by a team at Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the U.S., created strains of bird flu that could be transmissible in humans. Currently, wild forms of the extremely deadly virus can transmit to humans from infected animals, but cannot transmit between humans.

When the research was announced to the public, it sparked concerns about the safety of the experiments and the possibility of abuse by bioterrorists or rogue nations. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), an American panel of scientists and security experts, recommended key details be left out of the published papers.

Many scientists disagreed with the unprecedented recommendation, stressing that the proposed measures for disseminating information to legitimate scientists would be unreliable, and that such measures would not prevent malicious uses of the research.

In an interview with Science, the leader of the University of Wisconsin, Madison study, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, said, “The redaction of our manuscript, intended to contain risk, will make it harder for legitimate scientists to get this information while failing to provide a barrier to those who would do harm.”

In January, Kawaoka and Ron Fouchier, leader of the other study in the Netherlands, led a number of prominent flu scientists in agreeing to a 60-day halt on further research involving engineered strains of bird flu. Research on naturally-occurring bird flu was not affected.

The scientists at the WHO meeting agreed to extend the moratorium indefinitely and delay publication of the papers. However, they stressed that the full papers should be published: “Delayed publication of the entire manuscripts would have more public health benefit than urgently partially publishing.”

“There is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies,” said Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s Assistant Director-General of Health Security and Environment.

The meeting included 22 experts from around the world. Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka were in attendance, along with the Indonesian and Vietnamese scientists who provided the bird flu samples for the experiments. Several other leading flu experts were at the meeting, as well as Philip Campbell, the editor-in-chief of the journal Nature, and Jerome Singh, a South African bioethicist.

The group’s decision is not binding. Not all the meeting’s attendees were satisfied with the recommendation. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S., stood by the NSABB recommendations. Paul Keim, the acting chair of the NSABB, was “disappointed” in the decision.

Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, was surprised. The journals Science and Nature were planning to publish the research in a redacted form in mid-March. “Certainly that’s now not going to happen,” Alberts said in his publication. He said Science is now awaiting “further information from the WHO and other authorities” before publishing the studies.

The WHO meeting was limited in scope to immediate actions to be taken regarding bird flu research. According to the WHO, “many broader concerns” have been raised, and there are plans for meetings with a wider scope in the near future.