A two-day meeting of 22 experts convened in Geneva by the World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that two controversial flu studies should be published in full. The research — in which ferret-transmissible strains of avian H5N1 flu virus were created — will be published after a delay of probably a few months, which the experts argue is needed to explain better the public-health benefits of the research and allay public concerns over the safety of the work. “There is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies,” says Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general of health security and environment at the WHO. “However there are significant public concerns surrounding this research that should first be addressed.”
The panel, largely made up of flu researchers, also concluded that research into creating more transmissible forms of H5N1 and other flu viruses was important and must continue. They agreed to extend a voluntary 60-day moratorium to allow broader discussions on the biosafety aspects of how such work could best be carried out, given the concerns in many quarters as to the potential consequences of an accidental escape of such viruses from the lab. To this end, the WHO intends to hold further meetings with a broader mix of experts over the next few months.
In December, the US government and the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) had requested that Nature and Science should not publish the two studies. Fukuda said at a press conference today that since then, there has been more time to reflect, and that in particular, it would be far too complex to redact the details of the papers, and to create a mechanism for disseminating the papers only on a need-to-know basis. The meeting reached consensus on all the major issues, he said, but not the recommendation to publish the study in full, given that some of the US experts present, including Paul Keim, the chair of NSABB, adhered to the US administration’s line.
Philip Campbell, the editor-in-chief of Nature, issued a statement: “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.”