Thursday, February 16, 2012

Health: WHO tackles bird flu research controversy

RFE/RL Copyright (c) 2012. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

WHO tackles bird flu research controversy

To publish or not to publish? For the next two days the UN World Health Organisation will be debating what to do about controversial flu research carried out at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam. The United States blocked its publication and the WHO is trying to resolve the heated debate which ensued.

There was panic in political circles when virologist and research leader Ron Fouchier announced the creation of a new laboratory virus late last year. Genetically modified H5N1 influenza virus proved to cause airborne infection among ferrets, a characteristic the natural virus did not have. The discovery by the Erasmus Medical Centre is highly significant since ferrets have similar reactions to human beings. Fouchier called it “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you could develop”.

Radical action
The results were ready for publication in the journal Science, but the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity was afraid terrorist organisations would use the information to produce a biological super-weapon. The paper was not published. Later the NSABB stopped Nature from publishing a similar article by a US-Japanese group of researchers, who had come to the same conclusions as the Dutch.

It’s not often the NSABB takes such radical action. The last time was when it tried to block an article in Nature about the reconstruction of the virus which caused the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, when an estimated 50 million people died. The journal published it anyway.

The controversy about the Dutch virus led to a 60-day breathing space initiated in mid January to allow international debate between scientists, politicians, ethicists and the media. The debate is not only about the publication ban, it is also about the need for influenza research which produces dangerous results. The special meeting of the WHO is part of the process.

As far as we know, 22 people are seated around the table at WHO headquarters in Geneva. They include representatives of the Asian laboratories which supplied the viruses, the editors of Nature and Science and the researchers themselves. One of the main questions is whether the publication of results in scientific journals is necessary and, if so, what form it should take.

It is possible both publications will print a modified paper in which the research methods are omitted. But, Ron Fouchier argues, they must publish. In his view, the chance of a solitary terrorist manufacturing a similar virus is minute. Repressive regimes with proper facilities and trained researchers will be able to do it anyway, and it is essential for flu researchers to be able quickly to identify the mutations they come across.

One of the problems highlighted by the discussion is that scientists have not developed a secure system of sharing sensitive information. As soon as they communicate by email or on the internet, the data becomes as easily available as if it had already been published. A secure exchange platform is currently being considered, but it will only work if it is internationally recognised.