SATURDAY, Feb. 18 (HealthDay News) -- Research on a mutated, more contagious form of the bird flu virus can be published in full, the World Health Organization announced Friday, despite concerns that bioterrorists could use the information to start a pandemic.
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The decision came during a special meeting of 22 bird flu experts in Geneva that was convened by the WHO to discuss the "urgent issues" that have swirled around possible publication of the two bird flu studies since last November, The New York Times reported Saturday.
Most of those at the meeting felt that any theoretical terrorist risk was outweighed by the "real and present danger" of similar flu virus mutations occurring naturally in the wild, and by the need for the scientific community to share information that could help identify exactly when the virus might be developing the ability to spread more easily, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Times. Fauci represented the United States at the meeting.
"The group consensus was that it was much more important to get this information to scientists in an easy way to allow them to work on the problem for the good of public health," Fauci said. "It was not unanimous, but a very strong consensus."
However, Fauci added, the United States was not part of that consensus. U.S. bio-security chiefs had urged last November that critical specifics of the papers remain unpublished.
Although the bird flu virus, known as H5N1, rarely infects people, it appears to be highly lethal when it does. Of about 600 known cases, more than half have been fatal. If the virus were able to spread more easily from birds to humans, experts have estimated that millions of people could die after being infected.
The two studies at the center of the debate were to be published in the journals Science and Nature late last year. The papers, which were funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, describe how the H5N1 virus could mutate relatively easily into a strain that could spread rapidly among humans. The research was done by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and in the Netherlands.
The editors of both journals said they plan to publish the papers in full at a future date.
"Discussions at the WHO meeting made it clear how ineffective redaction and restricted distribution would be for the Nature paper. It also underlined how beneficial publication of the full paper could be. So, that is how we intend to proceed," Dr. Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, said in a statement. "As was expressed at the WHO meeting, there is a need first to explore how best to communicate the issues of publication to a concerned public, and to review safety assurance of labs who would act on this publication. I fully support the WHO's further efforts in this regard."
Speaking at a scientific meeting in Vancouver, Science editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts had this to say about the WHO decision: "So, my reading is that both Nature and Science are to wait until we get some further information from the WHO and other authorities of when, in fact, we are to publish the full manuscript."
Before the two studies can be published, the experts at the WHO meeting said that security assessments must be made, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Another meeting on the remaining issues will be held at a future date, the WHO said in a statement.
The scientists behind the research had agreed on Jan. 20 to honor a 60-day moratorium on further studies, the Herald reported, but that deadline will now be extended for an unspecified time to allow for a wider examination of the risks and for public discussion.
-- HealthDay staff
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SOURCES: Feb. 18, 2012, The New York Times; Feb. 18, 2012, Sydney Morning Herald