Bird flu research to be released despite terrorism fears
Full details of experiments that made a deadly flu virus more contagious will be published, probably within a few months, despite US recommendations that some information be kept secret for fear terrorists could use it to start epidemics.
The announcement, made by the World Health Organisation, follows two months of heated debate about the flu research. The recommendation to publish the work in full came from a meeting of 22 experts in flu and public health from around the world who met late last week in Geneva at the organisation's headquarters to discuss ''urgent issues'' raised by the research.
Most of the group felt that any theoretical risk of the virus being used by terrorists was far outweighed by the ''real and present danger'' of similar flu viruses in the wild, and by the need to study them and freely share information that could help identify any changes signalling that a virus is developing the ability to cause a pandemic, said Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who represented the United States.
The natural form of the virus being studied has infected millions of birds, mostly in poor Asian countries, and although it does not often infect people, it has a high death rate when it does. If the virus were to develop the ability to infect humans more easily, and to spread from person to person - which it almost never does now - it could kill millions of people.
The experiments involve a type of bird flu virus known as H5N1. Of about 600 known cases, more than half have been fatal. However, the exact death rate is not known because some of them may go uncounted and mild cases may go undiagnosed.
But whatever the death rate turns out to be, most researchers think it will be significantly higher than that of any flu virus, even the notorious 1918 flu, which had a death rate of about 2 per cent. But the 1918 virus was highly contagious and killed about 50 million people worldwide.
The H5N1 work, paid for by the National Institutes of Health, was done by two research teams, at Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Research on the viruses was voluntarily suspended by the researchers last month because of the uproar it provoked.
News of the experiments, which were conducted last year, set off public panic that the virus could accidentally leak out of a laboratory, or be stolen by terrorists, and result in a devastating pandemic.
Scientists have been divided, with some urging that the results be published in full, and others saying the research is so dangerous that it should never even have been done, much less published. The moratorium on the research and its publication will be extended, probably for several months, said the health organisation's assistant director-general for health security and the environment, Dr Keiji Fukuda, who spoke at a news conference after the two-day meeting in Geneva.
Bruce Alberts, the editor of the journal Science, said his magazine and another one, Nature, had been planning to publish redacted versions of the research in mid-March.
Now, Alberts said, they will wait until it is considered appropriate to publish the full versions. He said he was surprised that the group meeting in Geneva had reached a decision so promptly.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald