A group of public health experts said Friday that they have agreed to delay the publication of new research on the H5N1 influenza virus after a meeting convened by the U. N. World Health Organization.
“Given the high death rate associated with this virus – 60 per cent of all humans who have been infected have died – all participants at the meeting emphasized the high level of concern with this flu virus in the scientific community and the need to understand it better with additional research,” said Keiji Fukuda, an assistant director general of the World Health Organization.
The agency convened the meeting to discuss differing opinions that have arisen in recent months after two research groups, one in the Netherlands and the other based in the United States, have created versions of the H5N1 influenza virus which are more transmissible in mammals than the H5N1 virus that occurs naturally.
“The results of this new research have made it clear that H5N1 viruses have the potential to transmit more easily between people underscoring the critical importance for continued surveillance and research with this virus,” Fukuda said.
During the talks, the group of experts came to a consensus that delaying publication of the entire manuscripts of research would have more public health benefit than urgently publishing it in part.
The experts also agreed that further research on the virus is necessary to protect public health and to review the biosafety and biosecurity implications of the laboratory-modified virus.
“There is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies. However, there are significant public concerns surrounding this research that should first be addressed,” Fukuda said.
In a news release, WHO said that it will continue the discussion with relevant experts to move the issue forward.
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands engineered a more virulent strain of the H5N1 bird flu to try to understand how mutations could make it more infectious to both animal and human populations – a change that could lead to a global pandemic.
But a U.S. government panel on biosecurity, concerned that the mutated virus could fall into the hands of bioterrorists, asked two leading scientific magazines – Science and the British journal Nature – not to publish sensitive details of the work.
The magazines agreed and in January, the scientists voluntarily halted their research for 60 days.