BREAKING NEWS – The technical details of two controversial experiments with an altered strain of avian flu virus are to be published, unredacted, despite official concerns over biosecurity.
Readers of Planetsave will recall my November 23 post on two recent experiments (one in the US and one in the Netherlands) with an altered strain of type A H5N1 (‘Avian flu’ virus) which made it more transmissible by also making it airborne (see: Genetically Altered Avian Flu Experiments Under Review by Biosecurity Board – Major Controversy Brewing).
A subsequent review of the data and experimental protocols by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) strongly urged — if not demanded — that key details of the two experiments be redacted before publication in scientific journals in the interest of preventing the information from being used in a bioterrorism attack. The altered strain was achieved by a process one researcher called “reverse genetics”. The exact details of this process are what the NSABB sought to redact and control.
Both of the lead researchers of the two separate experiments (Fouchier and Kawaoka*) reluctantly agreed to comply with this request, although stating publicly that doing so would hurt the scientific effort to understand the epidemiology if the lethal virus , which kills 60% of those that come in contact with it.
Earlier today (Feb. 17), in a meeting at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, disease experts announced their consensus that publication of the results should be delayed, stating:
“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. The results of this new research have made it clear that H5N1 viruses have the potential to transmit more easily between people underscoring the critical importance for continued surveillance and research with this virus.” — Dr Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General of Health Security and Environment for the World Health Organization.
However, although admitting “significant public concern surrounding this research” the WHO press release also quoted Dr. Fukuda, stating:
“There is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies.” (emphasis added)
This statement — virtually buried at the end of the press release, nonetheless was picked up by members of the world’s science press — many of whom are currently attending the Annual AAAS meeting in Vancouver, B.C., including this author (note: AAAS is the publisher of the leading peer-reviewed journal Science, which has delayed publishing of the Fouchier paper). And so, late this morning the editor in chief of Science, Dr Bruce Alberts, who was present at the Vancouver meeting, issued a prompt statement in response to the WHO press release:
“In the absence of any mechanism to get the information to those scientists who need to protect their populations and to design new treatments and vaccines, our default position is that we have to publish in compete form.”
Previously, Science had chosen to comply with the rare, if not unprecedented, “request” by the U.S. NSABB to not publish the full details of the H5N1 experiment, after officials intervened in the journal’s pending publication, warning of the consequences if the airborne version of the virus came into possession of “those who would seek to do harm.”
Dr. Albert and many other leading scientist in the field believe that publishing the results in full is essential to aiding the rapid development of a vaccine (through making the data available to other virologists and epidemiologists the world over), in the event that a wild version of virus evolved in the wild.
“This is likely to happen at some point in the wild because these viruses are mutating very actively in the wild,” said Alberts.
To be sure, the public and professional controversy over these experiments also continues to evolve. Stay tuned, we haven’t heard the last of this.
* Kawaoka’s flu experiments involved combining H5N1 with a pandemic strain of the 1918 Spanish flu (pH1N1), creating a more easily transmissible version of the virus. Kawaoka’s experiment is to be published in the journal Nature.
Special thanks to Kate Travis at Science News