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Uncertain Path For H5N1 Research

Policy: A closed-door meeting and a vague statement from an international panel muddy the road ahead

by William G. Schulz
February 27, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 9

Credit: Tom Kochel
Bruce M. Alberts
Credit: Tom Kochel

How to move forward with controversial research on the H5N1 avian flu virus, including publication of two papers reporting on recent experimental work, has grown murkier in the wake of a Feb. 17 statement from the World Health Organization.

According to WHO, an expert panel it convened “reached consensus on two urgent issues related to the newly created H5N1 influenza viruses: extending the temporary moratorium on research with new laboratory-modified H5N1 viruses and recognizing that research on naturally occurring H5N1 influenza virus must continue in order to protect public health.” The statement also says that the panel supports full publication of two research papers on the work, accepted by Nature and Science, “however, there are significant public health concerns surrounding this research that should first be addressed.”

“I am not sure exactly what the decision means because it’s qualified,” said Bruce M. Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, at a hastily assembled news briefing in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the same day WHO released the statement. Alberts agreed to talk to the press at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, in part to squelch rumors concerning the paper Science controls. The journal is published by AAAS.

The WHO panel of experts met behind closed doors at WHO headquarters in Geneva on Feb. 16–17. WHO required each expert, including the primary authors of the Science and Nature papers, to sign a confidentiality agreement barring them from open discussion of the deliberations. Public fear about avian flu along with the panel’s detailed review of the unpublished experimental work—deemed “dual use” and thus dangerous—dictated the secrecy, WHO says.

At the AAAS press briefing, Alberts revealed that Science and Nature had been planning to publish in mid-March redacted versions of the two papers that describe experiments to artificially mutate the H5N1 virus, making it more contagious and virulent. Under this plan, the journals would have been following the recommendations of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (C&EN, Feb. 6, page 6). NSABB Acting Chair Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University was a member of the WHO panel.

“Certainly now that’s not going to happen,” said Alberts, referring to the March publication plan.

In a statement, Nature Editor-in-Chief Philip Campbell, who was a member of the WHO panel, said: “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.”

Alberts was less definitive: “My reading is that both Nature and Science are to wait until we get some further information from WHO and other authorities about when, in fact, we are to publish the full manuscripts.”

But WHO is not dictating decisions for Science, Alberts insisted. Instead, “we’re allowing them to say, ‘Delay publication until issues are resolved.’ ” It is reasonable, Alberts said, that public fears about the research be addressed first.


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