A federal advisory committee that has been debating whether to try to limit publication of two controversial bird flu studies said late on Friday they could safely move forward and wouldn't provide fodder for would-be bioterrorists.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity had asked researchers in December to hold up two studies that involved tinkering with the H5N1 bird flu virus to try and make it more easily transmitted. The two research teams, one led by Dr. Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and the other by Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, had agreed to suspend the studies temporarily while the scientific community and governments took a closer look.
The NSABB, which advises the Health and Human Services Department, said the decision was too big for the scientific community to make on its own, comparing it to the 1940s Manhattan Project.
In February, the World Health Organization held a special meeting on the issue.
The scientists, both of whom got funding from the National Institutes of Health, are not bound by the NSABB’s request. But the panel said they provided information that alleviated concerns about the safety of the work. “The Board was asked to consider the revised manuscripts from [Fouchier and Kawaoka] and to recommend whether the information they contain should be communicated and, if so, to what extent,” the board said in a statement.
“After careful deliberation, the NSABB unanimously recommended that this revised Kawaoka manuscript should be communicated in full. The NSABB also recommended, in a 12-to-6 decision, the communication of the data, methods, and conclusions presented in this revised Fouchier manuscript.”
Since it started spreading in 2003, H5N1 bird flu has killed 352 of the 598 people it is known to have infected--a mortality rate of 59 percent. This compares to a 2.5 percent fatality rate for the 1918 flu, which killed tens of millions of people, or 30 percent for smallpox before it was eliminated in 1979. Luckily, H5N1 doesn’t infect people easily, but it spreads rapidly through flocks of chickens, infects ducks with barely a symptom, and appears to be carried by migrating wild birds. All flu viruses mutate, and most flu experts fear it is only a matter of time before H5N1 either evolves or mixes up with another flu virus to make a form that can easily infect people.
Both labs were tinkering with H5N1 to see what it would take to make the virus both easily transmissible and still harmful, to help with preparing for the possibility of a new pandemic.
Bruce Alberts, editor‐in‐chief of the journal Science, which had delayed publishing Fouchier’s paper, expressed relief. “We are pleased by the NSABB’s decision to recommend publication of a revised version of Dr. Fouchier’s article that presents the data, methods, and conclusions in an unredacted form,” Alberts said in a statement.
“Dr. Fouchier’s paper describes genetic changes that allow the virus to be transmitted between ferrets via aerosol or respiratory droplets. The virus, which is already widespread in birds, continues to evolve rapidly in nature. Because the ferret provides a model for human transmissibility, these results underscore the importance of surveillance to determine if the virus is evolving in a direction that raises further concerns for a human pandemic,” he added.
“Making the complete research results available via peer‐reviewed publication in Science will help responsible influenza researchers design antivirals and vaccines to combat outbreaks, as well as make possible improved international surveillance to protect public health and safety.”
Nature said it would publish Kawaoka's paper right away.
"Subject to any outstanding regulatory or legal issues, we intend to proceed with publication as soon as possible," Nature's editor in chief Philip Campbell said in a statement.
Earlier on Friday, the NIH released new rules tightening the drill on such “dual-use” research--studies that can be used both for good and for warfare or terrorism.
They call for tighter scrutiny of U.S. funding of studies involving 15 pathogens, from bird flu to Ebola, anthrax and plague. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the rules formalized policies already in effect. “I don’t think it bad at all,” Fauci told National Journal. “I don’t think it is going to interfere with the timing of grants. I don’t think it going to have an impact at all.”